The regular ringmaster quit and left the Shrine Circus the day before it was to begin a performance here in 1985, so the producer asked animal trainer Ian Garden Jr. to fill in. Mr. Garden had learned how to lead the ring from his experienced father but had never done it himself. Though nervous, Mr. Garden agreed.
“Since then I’ve done thousands of them,” he said.
He doesn’t expect to fill in for current Shrine Circus ringmaster Billy Martin during this weekend’s visit of the Shrine Circus to the Consol Energy Center, but he’ll still be plenty busy with his regular job. He’ll be leading six rare paint camels through a “waltz.” It ends with its lead paint camel giving his human trainer a touching thanks.
“It’s a pretty formation routine,” the animal trainer said, “and at the end my leader, Pasha, he gives me a kiss; gives me a hug; wraps his whole neck around my body.
“That’s something you don’t see too often.”
The appearance by the paint camels — there are only 40 in the United States — will be one of the highlights of the Shrine Circus, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year. There also will be appearances by Spider-Man, Grandma the Clown, the Human Fuse, trapeze artists, elephants, tigers, bears, motorcycles, magic and other clowns.
The Shrine Circus is the largest fundraising event for the Shriner’s of Pittsburgh, which has more members — roughly 6,500 — than any other city in North America. Proceeds from the shows help support the 22 Shriner’s Hospitals for Children, which offer free care, especially for those needing orthopedic care, burn treatments and cleft palate repair.
The paint camels are sure to rouse interest from the crowd. They are dromedary, which means they have a single hump on their backs, unlike the Bactrian camels that have two. Paint camels, which are originally from one of the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, look different than other camels — they’re dark chocolate brown with white spots.
“Some have an appaloosa mark on their feet like appaloosa ponies,” said Mr. Garden, 52. “Ninety percent of them have blue eyes. They’re really, really neat looking.”
During his 35-year circus career, Mr. Garden has “worked with dogs, a lot of horses, elephants, tigers, camels, zebras, monkeys, snakes and a few wild children. I have three,” he joked.
His oldest child, a daughter, 20, is a hula hoop performer in another circus with her husband, a juggler. Another daughter is going to start college next year and his son is in high school.
He owns seven of the paint camels but uses six of them in his circus act. The seventh is on display at a zoo. All in the circus group are about 2½ years old. “It’s the only performing group of spotted camels in the world,” he said.
Along with their performance in the first half of the 2-hour and 10-minute circus, Mr. Garden and the camels offer rides for audience members before intermission and after the show. “They’re very comfortable, very sweet, a thrill of a lifetime.”
Does he have a favorite act to watch in the Shrine Circus besides his camels?
“I’m partial to animals,” he said. “This business still amazes me: the dedication, the love, the effort. … To watch each and every act is still incredible.”
He hopes the people who attend the Shrine Circus will enjoy the performances too.
“I just want to let people know… it’s a phenomenal, phenomenal show, fun and exciting,” he said. “Fun for everyone.”
Pohla Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1228.