BANGOR, Maine — Take one step into the Cross Insurance Center this week and your nose will start to pick up an interesting smell. It’s a smell that takes you out of the city and to the country, a smell that puts you in the middle of a haystack.
That smell means that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus — for the first time — has come to town and will be performing from Thursday through Sunday, and besides the beloved clowns, trapeze acts and jugglers, the show features a variety of animal acts.
Gala Rogacheva, a second-generation animal trainer hailing from Russia, has been involved in circus life since she was born.
“My mother was an animal trainer and my father was a juggler,” Rogacheva said. “When I was younger I would help my mother with her animal acts and I practiced juggling, belaying and riding horses.”
Rogacheva officially started her animal training when she was 7 years old. She said there is no program or certification you receive for circus animal training, you simply learn from those around you. For Rogacheva, her mother was her biggest influence and the person who taught her the most.
“My mother started [animal training] when she was 17 years old,” Rogacheva said. “She met my father when he was in circus school in Moscow … and when the Ringling Bros. asked my mother to come [to the United States] with her geese act they accepted and came here.”
Born into the circus life, Rogacheva says traveling is ingrained in her and is one of her favorite things. When she realized she would be heading to Bangor she became extra excited.
“I am such a big fan of Stephen King … I started reading his books when I first learned how to read,” Rogacheva said. “I am in awe of him and his books … I was really excited to come here and be able to visit his home … it was like a special treat, a dream come true.”
As an animal trainer, life can be full of special moments. Like the time Rogacheva — who most often works with horses, dogs and camels — taught a sea lion how to do a handstand.
“I was able to get [a sea lion] to do a handstand on one flipper … you teach them like you would a human,” Rogacheva said. “Sea lions use their front flippers to pull themselves up, so it is natural movement for them … all you have to teach them is balance.”
Rogacheva is able to train animals to do these types of tricks because she builds their trust. She said you cannot just walk into an animal’s stall and start telling that animal to sit, smile and wave. It does not work that way.
“By taking care of them you can build their trust,” she said. “You start to socialize with them, clean their stalls, groom them and get to know them.”
She gives all of the animals positive reinforcement. Through treats, praise and understanding of their needs, the animals are able to learn how to share special talents with their audience.
The audience is why the circus is around. It allows the performers and animals involved to share their talents. And that’s what drives people like Rogacheva.
“I can speak from all of us here, that is the best part,” Rogacheva said. “The applause and excitement from the audience … it shows that they enjoyed what we have performed.”
After years of experience it would be hard to believe that Rogacheva still gets nervous before shows.
She does. And she said that is a good thing.
“My mother told me that once you lose that nervousness you might as well quit,” Rogacheva said.. “If you still get butterflies you still have the passion.”
Rogacheva clearly shares a close bond with the horses she trains. When her circus life is over she hopes to continue with this passion and be able to train horses.
“I plan on sticking with [the circus] until I am no longer fit to perform … then I want to train horses,” she said. “I want to teach them things that they would not normally be taught, like smiling, waving, laying down … cute stuff … I want to educate others.”
While the applause helps fuel a circus performance and its performers, there’s more to the life than that. After the lights go down and the show is over, after all of the commotion has stopped, Rogacheva loves to go behind the scenes with the animals.
She unwinds, as they do. And she loves to stand back and watch them eat.
After yet another show in another city on another tour, she said just hearing the animals crunch on the hay brings her a calmness and happiness that cannot be replaced.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus will perform Nov. 7-10 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Tickets are available at the Cross Center box office, by phone at 800-745-3000, and online at ticketmaster.com. Prices start at $17 and there are discounts for groups of 15 or more.
In addition to the circus performance, there is an all-access pre-show which comes with general admission. One hour before the show, attendees will be able to meet the animals and experience them up close. Children can learn how to juggle, walk on a low wire and get a glimpse at what it is like behind the scenes.