Traveling circus stays put in virus-hit Italy

They say the show must go on, but the Rony Roller circus isn't going anywhere right now.


Rony Vassallo poses for a portrait with his lions at the Rony Roller circus, parked on the outskirts of Rome, Saturday, April 18, 2020. (Photo: AP)

The caravan sits idle in an empty field on the outskirts of Rome.

Acrobats, clowns and other artists are stuck here with dozens of animals — including lions, tigers and donkeys. Their last show was March 7, and, as the coronavirus pandemic rages around the globe, no one knows when they will hear the roar of a crowd again.

"It is strange for me to be with the lions in this silence, this darkness," says circus director Rony Vassallo, 46. "I miss my audience. I miss them. I miss the big top, the applause."

Italy is considering easing the nationwide lockdown, which was put in place more than a month ago to stop the spread of a virus that has resulted in the deaths of over 24,000 people in the country — the highest toll in Europe. But events that gather large crowds, such as circus shows, are unlikely to return anytime soon.

"The entertainment sector will be the last to reopen. I have heard rumors about December," says Maverik Niemen, a 23-year-old clown with the Romina Orfei circus, which is currently parked in a field outside Naples. "Our only hope is that they find a vaccine."

In the meantime, the animals still need to be fed — and some are big eaters. The circus has almost 100 animals, including three elephants, a hippo, zebras, llamas, horses, giraffes and camels.

When the circus ran out of food, local farmers donated hay, fruit and vegetables, distributed daily by Italy's Civil Protection Agency.

"We are not used to asking for help," says Davio Casartelli, a 64-year-old elephant and giraffe trainer. "I am looking forward to being able to give something back."

The Italian Circus Association recently requested 10 million euros ($10,800 million) in aid from the Culture Ministry to help all the entertainment businesses that shut because of the pandemic. According to the association, about 20,000 workers in 5,000 businesses are currently without income.

Circus workers are also eligible for unemployment benefits, like any other Italian worker, and can get food vouchers. Employers, meanwhile, can benefit from a temporary tax suspension — part of the government's economic emergency plan. 

Many circus workers were born into the business. It's the only life they know. This is the first time they have seen the circus stop for such a long period. Meanwhile, all they can do is practice their trapeze maneuvers, juggling, animal tricks and other acts.

The younger girls watch in admiration when Otilia Maria Martinez Dos Santos, a 44-year-old acrobat in the Rony Roller circus troupe, practices on the aerial hoop. She cannot wait to perform her dizzying feats in front of a crowd.

"I miss the audience, the preparation, the emotion of the show," she says. "I hope that the future will be what our past was like, until the virus. I'm afraid it will be hard to come back as we were."