The circus in the best-selling novel “Water for Elephants” is bleak, with disgruntled workers and malnourished animals. The real-life circus described by third-generation performer Jennifer Vidbel is quite the opposite.
“It’s such a happy, wonderful place to be,” says the Big Apple Circus animal trainer. Vidbel has spent her entire life in the circus world. “My life growing up was nothing I could have had staying home at a public school. Children growing up in the circus are exposed to so many different languages and cultures.”
Her grandmother trained horses; her grandfather, elephants. Vidbel never considered doing anything besides following in their footsteps.
“If you consider it a job, I don’t think you’d be successful at it. It’s a way of life,” she says. “Most of all, I love my animals.”
Vidbel works with dogs, goats and ponies in the show, all of whom she brings home to her farm in upstate New York when the circus is off-season.
“These animals are my family. They’re what I think about when I go to bed at night, and the first thing I think about when I wake up. It’s sort of like having kids,” the trainer says.
All seats at the Big Apple Circus are within 50 feet of the performance ring, a key feature because: “It’s very important to me that everyone can see up close how happy my animals are,” Vidbel says. “My goats are little hams. They really love the attention. They know they’re stars.”