Retired Circus Animals Trade in the Big Top for New Roles as Therapy Animals

Former circus horses parade about the pasture at Jenny Vidbel's farm in the Catskill Mountains. Vincent Tullo/Facebook

When the Big Apple Circus closed midyear in 2016, it wasn't just animal trainer Jenny Vidbel who found herself unemployed. The dogs and horses she had rescued over the years were now jobless too. Vidbel owned the well-trained menagerie so they retired with her to her 70-acre farm in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.

But "retired" is a relative term, especially when it comes to a third-generation circus performer and animals who certainly appear to enjoy an appreciative audience. Inspired by Big Apple's programs for children with special needs, Vidbel created a foundation that will offer animal-based therapy for people, while benefiting the horses, dogs and the occasional pig that make up its starring cast.

"It's about mentally healing one another. I know what animals have done for me and my life and what joy and peace they've given to me," Vidbel tells MNN. "I saw it later in life when my grandparents couldn’t be alone anymore and they traveled with me in the circus. I could see how they benefited from the animals and the animals benefited from them being around. It was perfect on both ends and a beautiful relationship."

'Animals need a job'

Jenny Vibel works with former circus horses
Jenny Vidbel works with former circus horses in the pasture of her 70-acre farm. Jenny Vidbel/Facebook

Vidbel knows her animals well and is convinced that they wouldn't be content spending their retirement grazing in a pasture with nothing to do.

"Animals need a job; they need to work," she says. "Animals need to engage and particularly circus animals because they're so used to human attention. Every time I go to practice with one horse, I have three horses looking at me, 'When is it my turn?'"

The new nonprofit is the Al and Joyce Vidbel Foundation, named for Vidbel’s grandparents. For years, people visited their farm — where the animals are today — to learn how to work with animals.

"The foundation is named after my grandparents because they were such an inspiration to me and they taught me how to respect animals," Vidbel says. "They're why I fell in love with them and was around them so much as a little girl. This farm was an inspiration to so many people. We still get calls from people saying, 'This farm changed my life.'"

Fulfilling tradition and destiny

Jenny Vidbel with circus dogs
Vidbel is showered with attention from her rescue dogs-turned-circus performers. Jenny Vidbel/Facebook

Vidbel and her animal performers continue to do small shows here and there while the foundation raises money to get the programs up and running, which will include building an amphitheater for performances. Vidbel plans to open the program to seniors, special needs children and those who are economically disadvantaged. They may be able to take part in hands-on animal care, watch training sessions and experience the animals performing in intimate settings.

Right now, there are 30 horses, seven dogs and four pigs on the farm, but Vidbel says she continues to adopt horses in need of rescuing. She has the space, not to mention the abilities to train hard-to-rehabilitate animals that may not get a second look at a feed lot auction.

"I always say I couldn’t believe I got paid to do what I did. I got to tour the world, be with amazing people and be with my animals," Vidbel says. "Now, the amount of support we've had (for the foundation) has been amazing and reassures me we're on the right track ... I feel like I'm carrying on a tradition and a destiny."