I was absent-mindedly scratching my head, attempting to come up with something light or funny for the holiday column, when I caught sight of my kitty-cat scratching her head too. This immediately elicited a sense of dread in me that she might be harbouring a flea or three.
That thought then led to a flashback of my old travelling days in Europe, visiting a museum in Munich, where I saw a magnificent-but-miniscule solid-gold display of antique, jewel-encrusted coaches and carts that were hooked up to deceased old fleas. I had stood there, mouth agape, gawking through that magnified glass at this truly astonishing site, while my mind tried to grasp the craftsmanship, time and patience it would’ve taken to produce such intricate objects and on such a petite scale. So that gave me this crazy topic to talk about!
Now there’s nothing funny about fleas, particularly when they were the primary culprits for causing the plague, but they do have an amazing ability to strut some pretty fantastic stuff. These icky bloodsuckers happen to be endowed with a body part that can propel them to great heights and lengths. Though teensy in stature, their long and strong hind legs allow them to perform great feats, such as leaping vertically up to seven inches and horizontally up to 13 inches, crowning them one of the best jumpers of all known animals (relative to body size), second only to the froghopper. To put this into perspective, a person six-feet tall would have to be able to launch himself 295-ft long and 160-ft high, or would have to have the strength of 10 Grinches, plus 2!
Watchmakers and jewelers were the first to exploit the insect around 300 to 400 years ago, when they were busy impressing the public and important people with their incredible metalworking skills by creating tiny models of carriages, carts, locks with ball and chains, etc., but they needed a little critter to attach them to in order to demonstrate their diminutive size or motor them around and fleas fit the bill.
So in 1830, an enterprising Italian named Signor Bertolottos hatched a great moneymaking scheme by switching the attention to the mighty-mites themselves. Hence the big business of ‘the smallest show on earth’ – known as a Flea Circus – became an overnight, worldwide carnival sensation. The 1900’s were the glory days for these ‘seeing-is-believing!’ sideshow attractions. Under its’ own special tent, the curious would crowd around a small table set up just like a real circus – complete with trapezes, rings and high wires – and the owners/ringmasters (who often fed them with their own blood) then gave them a show with at least as much fanfare as the bigger circus version of themselves.
The puny performers were put to work entertaining audiences with amazing ‘acts’ and ‘stunts’ such as chariot racing, dueling with tiny spinning swords, riding bikes, high diving, propelling Ferris wheels and windmills as well as tug-o-wars, balancing acts with umbrellas, ball juggling – and yes, even being shot out of a cannon. The acts were announced with attention grabbing titles such as Alibabba and the 40 Fleas!, The Great Fazoli Fleas Juggling Act and The Amazing Fleadini!
The shows were great for the fair-goers, but it wasn’t always fun for the fleas, because most of them were permanently glued to props such as posts, plus the wire collars wrapped around their necks were usually worn their entire life (which luckily was only 5 months). Some were stuck to mini musical instruments on a heated floor, and their frantic attempts to escape gave the appearance of playing them, and the ‘jugglers’ spent their life on their backs with their legs up in the air.
Over time, most of the circuses died off, save for a few in England and the U.S. up to the 1970s, and that’s not because of any lack of fans or Free the Fleas! protesters. It was simply a case of running out of the common house flea due to better hygiene, and our smaller, wimpier fleas from our pets just weren’t up for the job.
Today there is only one genuine flea circus that still performs at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich, but most of them now are a sideline of magicians and clowns using electrical or mechanical effects instead of real hoppers. Still, there are some out there – one being an entomologist from England – whom hope to start a flea circus revival using new species of strong-legged leapers, which makes me want to scratch my head all over again and would no doubt make some modern-day animal rights groups hopping mad!