Robert Birk is dressed as a Victorian circus ringmaster. Squeezing himself into what seems like the tiniest funfair theatre on earth, he starts handing out giant magnifying glasses to a group of excited children and their parents.
When ringmaster Birk pulls out a battered chess piece with a strand of copper wire protruding from the top, it becomes instantly clear to his amazed audience that his troupe of stunt-pulling acrobats, chariot racers and goal scorers are not mere virtual characters or part of some digitally mastered electronic “experience”.
Through the magnifying glass, a minuscule insect gesticulates wildly on the end of the wire on the chess piece. The size of a pin head, Roland Birk’s artistes are fleas, performing in what he proudly proclaims to be continental Europe’s last genuine “living flea” circus.
“All the others use tricks including dead insects and hidden magnets to propel them across the stage. I am pretty sure I am the only flea circus director left on the Continent who is still using real fleas like they did over a hundred years ago,” he said.
Yet “living” is a term that Birk was almost forced to abandon last week:over the Easter weekend, all 300 of his star performers were suddenly wiped out by the Arctic weather which has been plaguing the northern half of the Continent for weeks.
“It was a very difficult moment,” Birk, 50, explained.
The story, although true, happened to coincide with April Fool’s Day, and made headlines across the world. Would the show go on? It must, said Birk.
A frantic flea search was launched and Professor Heinz Mehlhorn, a German zoologist specialising in the study of insects, came to the rescue. He delivered 60 newly hatched “cat fleas” as replacement artistes.
Back in his flea circus, at a fair outside the provincial west German town of Kommern, the ringmaster was putting his new recruits through their paces this week. He pushed a miniature brass carousel on to his flea-sized stage. It started revolving.
Through the magnifying glass, a flea, attached by another copper wire which had been looped around its head, was dragging the carousel forward in what was clearly a Herculean undertaking: Mr Birk explained it was comparable to a human pulling a juggernaut truck.
A bizarre display of Lilliputian goal scoring followed. A flea, grasping a tiny polystyrene ball between its back legs, suddenly flicked its plastic possession between miniature goalposts. The act was completed with “dancing fleas”, which waved bits of macaroon paper, and a “chariot competition” – a contest in which the insects raced against each other while wired to minuscule carriages. “My British audiences are especially fond of this,” Mr Birk explained. “They always place bets,” he added.
As his adroit performance revealed, skill and knowledge are needed in the flea circus business, but “training”, he said, is not so important. Only female fleas are used and they are either “jumpers” or “walkers” by nature.
The circus fleas stay “wired up” to thin copper wire strands for all of their performing lives. The live fleas are put in a cool plastic box with their wires still attached when not performing and are ready for action when the next show begins.
Under German law, wiring up fleas is not considered cruel because they are classed as parasites.
But some animal lovers still object. On one occasion Mr Birk was forced to abruptly end one of his performances after a spectator started spraying the stage with insect killer shouting: “Better a clean death than torture.”