Manege Frei… Step Right Up …

The Knie, Switzerland’s national circus, is back on the road.  Every year, during the third week in September, the Knie sets up on the Gurzelen Platz in Biel. Until I was six years old, Onkel Bobi always got us tickets to a matinee.

Since 1926 the Knie has travelled across the country by train. Everything – equipment, offices, accommodation, animals – makes the journey between cities in forty-five railway carriages. It is a masterpiece in logistics. It was also a highlight in many a child’s life to have watched the animals disembark at the freight depot. The lions and monkeys were in cages but the elephants walked themselves to the Gurzelen. My grandmother once discovered a sleeping lion under the magnolia tree in her garden. One of the Knie brothers came round and took it back to the circus.

The Knies were actually born in Austria in 1807 and did not cross the border into  Switzerland until 1828. They were rope dancers and acrobats and performed for Napoleon’s widow. The family applied for Swiss citizenship in 1866 but their request was not granted until 1900.

During WWII, the Zirkus Knie was blacklisted by the Nazis and banned from performing in all countries of the Third Reich. Frédy, at twenty-two and his younger brother, Rolf negotiated with the German Ambassador in Bern and  were granted permission to hire artists from occupied countries. In exchange they agreed to perform during the 1942-3 season at the Berlin Wintergarten. Frédy became known for his equestrian skills in the ring and Rolf was widely recognised as one of the greatest elephant trainers of his generation.

In 2001, Stephanie of Monaco fell in love with a 7th generation Knie brother. She ran away from her life as a princess and joined the circus. Franco Knie left his wife and Stephanie  moved to Switzerland with her three children. The relationship lasted eighteen months.

In 2015, after almost one hundred years, the Knie family announced that it would no longer be using elephants in its shows. It would focus instead on an elephant breeding programme at its Rapperswil headquarters on the Lake of Zurich. A statement declared that this decision was part of a long-term plan and was unrelated to any criticism from animal rights groups. The Animal Protection League welcomed the decision whilst acknowledging that the Knies had always treated their animals well. Frankly, I was surprised to discover that Fredy Jr. and Franco had managed to resist the criticism, and the audience’s changing sensitivity to the roles of large animals in travelling circuses, for as long as they did.

The Knie has always been known for the quality of its shows which have set the standard against which other classical circuses are measured. The Knies are also a forward-thinking bunch: in 1956 the family purchased land and Rapperswil became their HQ and winter residence. In 1962, they opened a successful Children’s Zoo. Today they offer environmental protection courses, nutritional programmes, the opportunity to shadow a zoo keeper (the daily rate of 450Sfr is donated to an elephant protection programme in Thailand) as well as banquets, breakfasts and birthday parties in the Thai-styled lodge.

The 2021 Knie tour began in Bern and will take in 7 cities between early August and New Year’s Eve. Biel is not on the programme this year. I was curious to know how they had plugged the gap following the phasing out of elephants and big cats. The answer is: Bastian Baker (born Kaltenbacher), a Swiss singer-song-writer and professional ice hockey player. The new format is Cirque du Soleil meets rock musical, interspersed with old Knie favourites – sleek black horses and colourful Macaws. It’s quite right of course that wild animals (if not animals born in the wild) are no longer part of the programme but, watching a team of horses and a pandemonium of parrots getting off the train at the Gueterbahnhof won’t provide future generations of small children with quite that same magic.