by Diana Hockley
Male mice brawling like dock workers in the back of the van is not a sight with which many people become accustomed, but you can get used to anything.
In 1996, my husband, Andrew and I were living on 35 acres, a few minutes outside the country town of Boonah in southeast Queensland, Australia. We ran a Scottish Highland cattle stud and were struggling with our pet food distribution business. We operated a worm farm and delivery service to over 30 pet shops and aquariums, the area stretching from the Sunshine Coast – north of Brisbane – to the Gold Coast, south. We needed something to augment our income.
I came across a newspaper article with a story about a mouse circus, which toured New Zealand in the 1950s. I enjoyed the article, but didn’t think anything of it until the notion overcame me: why don’t we build one? The first task was to work out how to create a circus tent structure. We settled on a flat, hinged board with slots for the bottom, into which the sides with scallops in the top fitted. The whole edifice would sit on trestles. Andrew created tall center lights joined by a ladder, like a trapeze. Colored lights formed the top a circus tent shape. We collected a variety of brightly colored wheels and toys, and painted everything in high gloss primary colors. The fun center-piece was a pot, painted bright blue with the legend, Cat and Rat Pub, Frisbee Licensee Rat. Frisbee was a ‘rat of my heart.’
The next task was to find gorgeous, colored performers. We settled on fifty as a good number to display and started buying up all the mice we could find. Our initial target audience being children, we aimed for gigs at shopping centers, birthday parties and childcare centers. At first this didn’t happen; it was very slow to take off. What set us on a heady path to success was, strangely enough, a random booking at an agricultural show/fair by someone who had seen us at one of the only two shopping centers who hired us over the ten years we were in operation!
By February 1997, things were starting to rev up and we closed the worm business. Agricultural show committee members, always eager for new attractions, saw the circus in action and told committees from other towns. The circus became a fixture on the show circuit, but with increased fame came the need for more mice! We sacked the males – what was left of them after their brawling – retired them to beat each other to death in luxury accommodation in the shed and only kept girls, who didn’t arrive at the shows bleeding. However, this necessitated acquisition of only female mice, which had its own logistical problems.
Most agricultural shows have high and low times. Little mouse legs being incapable of spinning wheels for too long, we figured that stints from 10am-12, 2pm – 4pm, and 6pm-8pm covered the busiest times. We had a large canopy overhead to keep the sun and as much light as possible away from the mice. The morning shift was okay – the mice worked well – the afternoon stint was pretty lively until about 3pm, when the majority of performers sensibly retired to the pub. Fortunately, there were always one or two stalwarts who kept the public happy with antics right up to the end of the shift. Perhaps they drew the short straws! The evening shift was really good; the mice were awake and ready to party! The spotlights with halogen bulbs seemed to send them into a frenzy. In the dark of the grounds, the circus glowed, the music carried for hundreds of meters and the audience came from all over the grounds.
We thought the mouse fans would be mainly children, but people of all ages would gather and stand, transfixed, all cares forgotten for ten, twenty, forty or whatever minutes. Our oldest constant fan was 92. Some women would scream when they first saw the mice – “They’ll jump out and get me!” Resisting the impulse to strike these characters down where they stood, Andrew or I would coax them to watch for a moment. Many times they would still be there twenty minutes later!
We constantly searched for more mice because they do not live that long and some were not robust to begin with. On one memorable occasion, my friend, Sandee, heard of a young man who was breeding mice and whose mum had ordered him to sell some. I negotiated for 200 female mice to be paid for with two 25 kilogram sacks of laboratory pellets. Sandee and I mounted an expedition for the north of Brisbane, a drive of around two and a half hours from the southeast. We loaded up the Ford panel van, which we had at the time, with the plastic carry boxes with mesh lids, ice cream container houses with shredded newspaper nests, plenty of food and fruit for liquid in lieu of water bottles. Everything the discerning mouse could possibly want!
Things started to go downhill as soon as we arrived at our destination. The youth, who was slick as a gravy sandwich, had omitted to mention that the mice he had were – in human terms – about five years old! This meant they were small enough to squeeze out of the corners of the mesh covers on the boxes. We couldn’t re-neg; I needed them urgently. We loaded up around two hundred and twenty – the youth scraped up a smidgeon of conscience and donated twenty extra girls – handed over the bags of food and away we went.
Daylight was rapidly fading as we reached the northern suburbs of Brisbane. I felt something on my leg – a mouse! Sandee, who wears her long hair up in a twist held with a clasp, said, “I’ve got a mouse in my hair!” A little mouse, obviously an aspiring hairdresser, was sitting on the comb, fiddling with my friend’s hair. Just then my mouse scampered up my person and clung like a brooch to the front of my shirt. They were on the loose!
A glance into the rear view mirror revealed the silhouettes of dozens of little rodent bodies scampering across the tops of the boxes, back-lit by the car behind us. It was like a miniature street festival! Suddenly, they were everywhere – in our handbags, laps, scooting across the back of the front seat. Sandee and I roared with laughter. The best moment was when we stopped at the bridge toll booth south and a mouse, perched on the dashboard, paused in her ablutions to peer beadily at the attendant, who gaped and then burst out laughing. Fortunately, they all went back to their boxes when I got home and turned on the light in the van.
The Queensland show circuit runs from early February to early October. In September, I would start compiling a list of events for the following year and approaching show committee secretaries. Many were already booked for the following year when we collected our money from the show office at the end of the gig. The most economical way of working was to do tours, working out a show circuit which encompassed maybe six or seven shows one after the other. For this, we had a campervan in which Andrew would live with the mice, who lived in their boxes, when they weren’t visiting him in his bunk at night! The circus itself was packed into a trailer which was towed behind. The circus traveled thousands of kilometers each season. They featured up in documentaries, newspaper articles and were on TV shows. Andrew was called ‘The Mouse Man‘! Many years he would be away for anything up to six weeks at a time.
Our biggest job for a continuous five years was at the Brisbane Exhibition (the EKKA) which ran for ten days in August and necessitated a roll call of 360 performers. I would start gathering the troops as early as March. Situated in the animal nursery from the second year, the mice were swamped with devotees. Twenty deep, with kids on their father’s shoulders, we had to install a spy camera in the top of the canopy connected to a small TV set so we could see what was happening. Kids would put their hands in and Andrew would bellow, “Keep your hands out, please!” No one could tell how he was seeing them because of the crowds. The littlest children must have thought God was watching! The EKKA was such a big event every year and radio stations would have talk-back shows during which they would ask kids to phone in and say what their favorite part of the show was. The mice were a constant favorite!
The audience always enjoyed watching when I would put a couple of round, yogurt-covered raisin balls into the circus. It was scrum down time in mouse football! (soccer/rugby scrimmage in American parlance– editor’s note). A mouse would grab it and run with a troop chasing her, the whole mob would join in. The ball would be grabbed and off they’d go, chasing that mouse. I was very lucky to be given a whole pen for a rat display every year. I had baby rats playing, rats in hammocks, and gorgeous rat photos from rat calendars. It was a wonderful opportunity to educate the public and hand out rat-related propaganda. I think we won a lot of fans for ‘ratties’ over the years.
We actively encouraged the taking of photos and videos of the mice in action, and to this day I am sure the circus is still being enjoyed all over the world. We had a couple of occasions when we knew a mouse was stolen. One time, a youth wearing a wide-sleeved jacket complete with hood had been watching the mice silently for an extended time. As he went to walk away, a woman said, “He’s got a mouse up his sleeve!” Andrew grabbed the kid, spun him around and shook his arm over the circus. Sure enough, a mouse fell out! One year at the Brisbane Exhibition, two kids nicked a mouse and let it loose in the Stockman’s Bar. The lady who was running the bar, picked it up (they were very tame) and returned it. ‘I knew where this belonged!’ she said to Andrew, laughing.
But while there were plenty of well-behaved kids and responsible parents, there were many who were not, despite the signs asking people not to touch the mice. I couldn’t blame kids. The mice were performing only inches away. People would ask why we didn’t put a screen up, but can you imagine all the ice-creamed mouths and snotty noses pressed against it? Besides, the charm of the circus was that the audience could get up close. It was patently obvious that many kids were and are allowed to do as they like and don’t enjoy being asked, nicely, not to do something. I well remember a couple of boys, about twelve years old, constantly grabbing at the mice. I asked them several times not to and finally I told them to leave. I could feel the toe of my boot tingling when they shouted “eff” off and spit at me.
Our fifth year, we knew the writing was on the wall. The EKKA committee only keeps performances for five years, reasoning that no matter how popular something is, people want something different. That year we had 65,000+ people visit the circus, but we were still sacked! At the same time, insurance rates went through the roof. We had to pay $1,500 per year in case a mouse bit someone! Our shires (counties) became amalgamated state-wide, sending many agricultural shows out of business, so it was going to be very hard to survive on the remaining events. It was time to consider our position. We are not chickens (Aussie-speak for being well past the age of consent!) so we decided it was not only time to finish the circus but to sell the farm, which was also becoming very hard work.
The average mouse circus performer lived anything up to two years. Why wouldn’t they, it was fun with no babies to look after! I hadn’t replaced mice the last year, so the ones remaining went to good homes. However, we resurrected the circus in late 2008 for an ABC documentary on cancer. They wanted to show mice as fun as well as experimental animals, so we set it up, borrowed a lot of experienced mice back from a friend and made the film which was shown on ABC in 2009. Shortly after that we had a good offer from a company called Barnyard Babies, whose business is petting zoos.
Running the circus was hard work for both of us, but we had a wonderful time, kept the roof over our heads. We haven’t regretted selling it, because such a fun thing should be enjoyed and not left in storage. And the mice are immortalized on film twirling joyfully to the music, under “mouse circus Australia” on You Tube.