Roll up! Roll up! All the fun of the fair as fresh fleas are wired up to perform

Ringmaster Robert Birk tells Tony Paterson how 60 new recruits kept his show on the road

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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a world leader ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future