Having Faith in Misfit Mutts

An injured daredevil restarts his circus career with a little help from some pound pups.

Posted in , May 31, 2012

Luciano Anastasini with several of his Pound Puppies

I wasn’t looking for just any dog. I was looking for the right dog. Finally I stopped at a cage holding a white bichon frise with a mile-wide smile. “What can you tell me about this one?” I asked the shelter worker.

“That’s Penny,” he said with a note of hesitation in his voice. “She’s been adopted and returned three times. She spins around in circles and runs into walls. She can see, but...”

I knew what he was thinking. This one’s hopeless. Definitely not the dog you want for the work you do.

But it was. Definitely.

A little background: I spent my whole life in the circus, an eighth-generation Anastasini, a family of highflyers and daredevils who go back hundreds of years all the way to the Old Country.

My dad was a daredevil himself. In the fifties he was a wing walker. He would balance on top of an airplane in flight. Mom’s specialty was animals. You name it, she worked with it–elephants, lions and even baboons in South Africa.

For a while it looked like I’d follow in her footsteps. As a kid, I brought home stray dogs and trained them to do tricks in the backyard. I’d get them to roll over and leap through hoops. They were my buddies and I loved them.

But it felt more like a hobby. My real circus calling was the daredevil acts. I was an ace acrobat and juggler by age 12. I eventually met, fell in love with and married a flying trapeze artist, Gladis.

Before long I was driving motorcycles across the high wires, 13 stories above the floor of the big top. I had reached the height of my profession. Literally. The circus was my purpose in life.

Then it all came crashing down. Literally.

Gladis and I walked out hand in hand along with the rest of the circus performers that day in Chicago. We waved to the crowd. The cheers, the applause. It’s what I lived for! Gladis and I started out with our juggling routine.

Minutes later we climbed the ladder to the platform to begin our high-wire act. The music played and our routine began. Just seconds into the act, a spotlight shone into my eyes at an angle I wasn’t used to. I was temporarily blinded.

Before I could recover, my feet slipped. I fell 50 feet straight down.

I woke up in the hospital with a punctured lung and a broken wrist and shoulder. I could hardly take a breath without screaming, and I couldn’t have screamed if I wanted to.

“You will recover,” the doctor said, “but your shoulder and wrist will never be as strong as before. I’m afraid your high-flying days are over.”

Gladis held my hand. “You’re lucky to be alive,” she said. “Blessed. That’s all that matters.”

I did physical therapy for months, trying to regain my strength. “I’m going to perform again,” I swore to Gladis. “I have to. I love it too much. The circus is my life.”

Two years went by, yet all I could do was sell tickets and hang posters. No daredevil stunts. No hanging from the trapeze. I couldn’t even juggle. My wrist simply refused.

I had prayed and prayed for God to restore my strength. Now I felt washed up. Finished. Like God hadn’t even heard me.

One day I stood inside the ticket booth, hating how I was just a bystander to what I loved. Now what, Lord? It was a complaint as much as a prayer. Performing is who I am. It’s my purpose. But I will never get back in the spotlight like this!

I stepped out of the booth for some fresh air. Music and laughter poured out of the big red-and-white tent. Suddenly I thought back to those first backyard performances, if you could even call them that.

Mom was my audience and my dogs and I were the act. They’d jump over me as I somersaulted, nip playfully at my heels. Mom would laugh and applaud and whistle.

When it came to animals, her advice was always the same: “If you take care of them, keep them happy, love them, then they’ll keep you happy too.” And I was happy.

I stopped dead in my tracks. Was that the answer to my prayer? To train dogs? It had brought me happiness and a sense of purpose before. Could it again somehow?

That night I told Gladis, “I’m going to find some dogs to work with.” Gladis gave me a long, searching look. “Not just any dogs,” I continued, “but dogs nobody wants anymore. I’ll give them a second chance. A purpose. Maybe it’ll be my second chance.”

Gladis didn’t say anything. She just gave me a big, long hug.

I found my first dog, a black and white beagle mix named Bowser, at a shelter.

“He’s a clever one all right,” the shelter worker told me. “Maybe a little too clever. His owners said he wouldn’t stop jumping onto the countertops and stealing their food. They tried hiding things in the cabinets, which worked fine until Bowser figured out how to open the cabinet doors.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. I knew talent when I saw it. Clever, indeed. A strong jumper and deft balancer to boot. He’ll do just fine. I’d use treats to coax him on top of barrels, through hoops and over ramps.

Next came Stick, a pointy-eared terrier abandoned by his owners. Stick greeted me from his cage on his hind legs. “You passed the audition,” I told him, and brought Stick home straight away. A natural dancer.

Then Cocoa, a chocolate-spotted Dalmatian. She had dug so many holes in her owner’s yard that she’d dug herself right out of a home. It was obvious to me that she dug because she was bored.

I could channel her mental energy into tricks like flag and hurdle jumping. Give her a circus ring and she’d race around it for hours.

Now here I was appraising hopeless Penny. Spins in circles and runs into walls? Maybe there was a reason for that. “I’ll take her,” I told the shelter worker. No dog is hopeless.

Especially not because she is crosseyed, the first thing that I noticed about Penny when I got her home later that day. I crossed my own eyes to get a sense of what she saw. Yikes! No wonder she spun in circles, I thought.

“Come on, Penny,” I called to her. She bumped up against the couch, struggled to drink from the water bowl and would have collided with the door frame if I hadn’t been there to stop her.

“Your owners thought you were crazy,” I told her, as I clipped a leash onto her collar, “but you’re just crosseyed. Let’s take a walk.” We started in the kitchen.

Getting around the table and into the living room earned Penny a treat and praise. Through the hall toward the bathroom and back got her another treat. When she’d start to drift toward the left I’d correct her then give her praise.

We went outside. Onto the bench. Off the bench. Up the ramp. Down the ramp. Reward and praise. She caught on fast. A little love goes a long way with a dog.

I rescued one more, a bad-tempered schnauzer named Tyke. Did I say bad-tempered? Not for long. That’s the thing about dogs. They want to please you. They just need you to help them figure out how. Dogs want to have a purpose in life too.

I spent countless hours practicing with my canine crew. I didn’t think about the pain in my shoulder or the weakness in my hand. Not much, anyway. With five dogs depending on you, who has time for that?

Not only were they each giving me something to keep me moving but they were starting to look like a real circus act.

“I’m thinking it’s about time we had an audience,” I said to Gladis one day.

She was on the phone in minutes, inviting our neighbors and some of our four-year-old son Adriano’s friends over that weekend.

People gathered on the lawn with chairs and blankets. We even ordered pizza and grilled some hot dogs. (You can’t have a circus show without the smell of hot dogs.) I hit play on the boom box. Salsa music pounded out. The dogs stood, waiting for my command.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome! I am Luciano and these are my buddies,” I said, pointing them out one by one. “Say hello to Cocoa, Stick, Bowser, Penny and Tyke.”

All five dogs climbed smartly up onto a long bench behind me. “Sit,” I called and they sat at attention. “Stay,” I told them. They watched me closely. I started with the clever one.

“Bowser, come here, boy.” I picked up a hula hoop and held it in front of him. He leaped through it again and again, his paws barely touching the ground. “Good boy! Good boy!”

I turned to Stick. “Shall we dance, Stick?” I asked. He stood on his hind legs and I bent down to waltz with him. That got a big cheer from the crowd.

Then it was Penny’s turn. She still ran in circles, but this time they were around my feet. I dashed right and left, madly trying to escape her. After a few more tricks with Tyke and Cocoa, the music ended. The dogs returned to their places on the bench.

Our audience rose to its feet, applauding and cheering, the kids jumping up and down.

I stood there, fighting back tears and offering up a prayer of extraordinary gratitude. It felt like I was center stage under the big top again. It wasn’t long before I was.

Today I take my act, Luciano’s Pound Puppies, all across the country. I’ve added some more performers, all of them rescues, all of them like me, just needing a second chance and a purpose.

I once thought the high wire was daring. But there is nothing so daring, or rewarding, as trusting your faith to take you to new heights.

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