The greatest show of love

By Colleen Holt

For members of the Zoppé family of Greenbrier, every day is “Take Your Pet to Work Day,” considering that humans and animals alike are members of a ninth-generation circus family that started in Italy and tours across the country and abroad.

The Piccolo Zoppé boutique circus is just one part of a larger circus family that has been around for 180 years. The current configuration of animals in this show includes six horses and 11 dogs. These animals may be trained performers, but more importantly, they are beloved members of the family.

Tosca Zoppé has three draft horses and three miniature horses with her husband, Jay Walther. In the circus, Tosca is an equestrian ballerina, and Jay is a clown. “The pets are part of our family. We are passionate about our animals. When we take on a new horse or a new dog, they become family,” she said. “Yes, we work with the animals, but it is like communion with each other. I don’t choose the horse. The horse chooses me.”

One example of this is the story of a beautiful white horse named Toulouse. Tosca and Jay said they had gone to look at two black draft horses in Texas. Upon arriving, the black horses “could care less that we were there,” Jay said. However, a white horse in the field came right up to Tosca and nuzzled her, even going so far as to push the black horses away if they came close. “I told Jay, ‘We’re buying three horses today. He has chosen me.’” Toulouse is Tosca’s current performing horse.

Tosca said her horses also choose what, if anything, they will do in the circus. The two black draft horses, for instance, were not happy in or around the ring, even after a year of watching the rest of the horses perform. The horses eventually found their calling with a family in Northeast Arkansas. This family had 100 acres and 12 children — some of whom were adopted — and the horses are now happy, pulling wagons for the children. One horse, in fact, completely bonded with one of the children who has autism.

Those that choose a circus life get really excited when they are sitting in the chute and they hear their music playing. “You have to get a bond first. You can’t just look at 20 horses and say everyone is going to do what they’re going to do,” Tosca said. “They’ll come up with what they will do. They might pick up the bucket or get on the pedestal. You have to go in and play with them. It’s amazing what’s going to come out of that. They have a mind of their own and a personality of their own.”

When it comes to the dogs, they are the domain of Tosca’s older sister, Carla. She has eight poodles (both standard and miniature), a blue heeler/border collie mix and a Jack Russell terrier. Three of the dogs are rescues. One of the dogs, Zsa Zsa, is a poodle mixed with Chihuahua. Carla is also a former equestrian ballerina.

“When I get a dog, I don’t just pick one. They pick me,” Carla said, snuggling Zsa Zsa. “They’re not just props. They’re actually our babies.”

As with the horses, the dogs choose what they will or won’t do in the ring. Zsa Zsa, for instance, was not interested in anything to do with the sights and sounds of the circus after having been scared by the noise of fireworks near her home. “I left her out (of the ring) for a year, but she was watching every day. Now she’s doing things I never taught her to do.”

Being in a one-ring configuration, Carla said she started with seven dogs and then was up to 16 after about a year and a half. A favorite story is about her smallest poodle, who had been practicing riding in the wagon. All of a sudden, she jumped out of the wagon and decided to go down the slide with the bigger dogs.

“It’s funny how they’re all so different. They are so much like kids,” she said. Tosca added, “They’re animals. They’re not going to be perfect. They’re going to do what they want, and the audience laughs and loves it. That’s life!”

The sisters agreed that observation is the best way to train an animal for a circus job, which is something they learned from their father, Alberto. “It’s always good to have older animals around when you get new horses. It’s good to have an old soul. Just like people, they need a mentor,” Tosca said.

The Piccolo Zoppé boutique circus harkens back to earlier times in Italy when the circus was presented in more intimate one-ring settings. Their website describes the circus as “petite and unique. You will become enchanted with our performance and, before you leave, you will be part of our family.”

When Carla was born, her parents, Alberto and Sandra Zoppé, had a dog and horse act, and they also had a duck, a cat and a rooster. Having performed largely out of state, the Zoppés moved to Greenbrier on Christmas Eve 1984, with children Carla, Giovanni and Tosca. The children all have circus careers, although their parents did not push them toward that life. “The ring is made of sawdust, and I guess we have sawdust in our blood,” Tosca said.

Both of the girls began riding horses at an early age. “I learned to ride on a white Arabian,” Carla said. Carla fondly remembers times of sitting in pastures with their horses. “Horses are just addictive. It’s the bonding thing,” said Carla.

“They can feel your heartbeat from four feet away,” said Tosca. “Everything in life for me is about this connection.”