For Grafton High School graduate Ryan Henning, running off with the circus was almost expected.
Henning, 30, moved to Grafton as a toddler and attended Grafton Elementary, John Long Middle School before graduating from Grafton High School with the Class of 2002.
During summers while growing up, Henning would leave on the last day of school for Baraboo, home of the Circus World Museum, and wouldn’t return until the day before the next school year started.
“Instead of experiencing summers with my friends, I kind of ran away to join the circus,” Henning said.
He lived with his grandmother next door to the museum and would juggle in big top shows while caring for exotic animals like giraffes, alpacas and camels.
“My friends were always intrigued by what I did every summer,” he said.
The circus, after all, is in Henning’s blood.
His uncle, Greg Parkinson, was the executive director of the Circus World Museum for 18 years and his grandfather, Robert Parkinson, was the founder and director of the museum’s library and research center.
After graduating from high school, he set out on a year-long tour with a friend’s snow-white camel act with the Big Apple Circus in New York.
The next year, he took the camels on tour with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus’ “Greatest Show on Earth.”
After that two-year contract ended, he was hired to be an assistant animal superintendent and assistant elephant manager for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Red Unit, a position he has held ever since.
“Most of the time I’m with the elephants, making sure they have enough food and water, get their exercise and have a large herd to socialize with,” Henning said.
“I’m also involved with the logistics of moving the animals and all the equipment throughout the country.”
His time with camels early in his career led him to start America’s Show Camels, Inc. two years ago.
The show, which features six rare paint camels native to the Canary Islands, will be in Baraboo from May to August.
It will be the first time the six blue-eyed, black-and-white spotted camels will perform in a circus act, Henning said.
There are only 40 paint camels in the U.S. and about 1,000 in the world, he said.
“A friend of mine brought some of these camels to the U.S. back in the early 1990s,” Henning said.
“A few years later, the government said you could no longer import ruminant animals, or animals that chew their own cud. That’s why there are so few here.”
Henning’s camels are the offspring of two of the animals brought into the country before the practice was banned.
Although he won’t be in Baraboo this summer, Henning’s camels will be well tended.
They are trained by Ian Garden Jr., who with his father, has been in the circus business for more than 40 years, Henning said.
“It’s great to know my camels are in good hands with Ian,” he said. “We talk daily about how things are going.”
The camels are part of a liberty show, meaning they are able to run around the ring without ropes.
The routine varies, but sometimes three camels will run off in one direction under the command of Garden, while the other three take off the other way.
“The camels waltz together and individually. It’s phenomenal to see,” Henning said.
“They were all bottle-raised, so they’re extremely friendly and gentle. They’re basically like big puppy dogs.”
He said he’s able to see his camels about once a month and tries to visit them in Florida during the winter when he has some time off.
Henning’s job essentially requires 52 weeks of travel, so he doesn’t have a chance to get back to Ozaukee County very often, but he’s hoping to make time to see the camels in Baraboo this summer.
Some of his family members still live in Grafton, including his father and two brothers.
“It’ll be great to interact with all the people in the area that I knew growing and hopefully seeing some faces I haven’t seen in awhile,” he said.
Henning insists that life on the road doesn’t get old, although he will admit that logistical issues with snowstorms and other weather-related problems can slow him down.
“The only time when I get a little frustrated is when we have car trouble or you get stuck in a snowstorm,” he said.
“Otherwise, this is the greatest job in the world.”
For more information on America’s Show Camels, visit www.americasshowcamels.com.
Image information: GRAFTON HIGH SCHOOL graduate Ryan Henning bottle-fed the six camels he owns as part of America’s Show Camels, which will take its act to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo this summer. Henning worked at the museum in his youth. Photo courtesy of America’s Show Camels