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This family DOES live in a circus

  • Story Highlights
  • Dad is a tiger tamer, Mom hangs by her hair, and they travel with son
  • Life with a traveling circus includes one-room school and religious classes
  • Circus general manager and family travel to 36 cities each year
  • Parents say children learn from traveling, meeting workers from other countries
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By Rich Phillips
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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- They could probably smell him coming for miles.

Andrea Raffo hangs by her ponytail 30 feet above the ground while she performs.

Circus performers Andrea and Daniel Raffo with their son, Davian.

"Breakfast, boys," Daniel Raffo proclaimed as his cats jumped with excitement in their cages. Raffo set down his wheelbarrow, filled with Grade A beef. Using a pitchfork, he fed his Bengal tigers.

It's the morning ritual at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Raffo is the show's tiger trainer. He's a fifth-generation circus performer from Argentina. On this morning, the show awakes in Miami, Florida.

"You get up in the morning; you wash the animal, clean it up; you feed them, then you play with them a bit," Raffo said. "And then during the day, you spend some time with your family."

He lives in a trailer with his family so he can stay close to the tigers. He, wife Andrea and son Davian are all on a two-year tour with Ringling Bros.

But why would anyone live on the road like this, with a 4-year-old?

Andrea is also part of the circus, performing an aerial ballet, hanging by her hair high above the crowds, just like her mother and grandmother, who taught her the act.

"I can finish my act and then go up and see my son, so it's good, 'cause we're always together," Andrea Ayala Raffo said.

The Raffos keep a home in Florida but are rarely there.

"Home is actually my trailer, when we travel, and have dinner every night and watch TV. That's really my home," Andrea Raffo said.

And these lives on wheels come with real family needs.

Just outside Section 405 at Miami's American Airlines arena, across from the Mexi-go Taqueria and Nacho Time food stands, school is in session.

Jonathan Leiss is a licensed teacher with the circus. He uses a nationally recognized home-schooling curriculum. He pitches a one-room schoolhouse in every city where the show pitches its tent, for all of the school-age children of the circus.

School is open five days a week. He teaches all the subjects, and every one of his students gets personal attention.

"I would describe it as a rigorous curriculum," he said. "We don't want to allow anything to slip through the cracks because we're traveling. This is a real school."

Leiss added, "If I was teaching in a public high school, I could have 120 students. That's a lot less opportunity to really address what each student needs."

Katherine Stuart is one of the students. The 8-year-old is growing up quickly, surrounded by circus people from 32 countries. One of the performers is teaching her Spanish. She says she likes to wash the elephants, and she loves the travel.

"You can see all these different places and what it looks like, and I also wanted to know what each state looked like, so I get to do it," she said.

Katherine's dad is Mike Stuart, the general manager. With his wife, Mary, and son Tylar, 3, he hits about 36 cities a year. When CNN arrived at his temporary office at the Miami arena, Katherine was reading with Mike. Tylar was with Mom, playing a "Blues Clues" game on the computer.

"This is a 24/7 job, so I make time pretty much every day to sit with my kids, go out with my kids," Mike Stuart said.

The Stuarts, like most of the 350 circus members, live on a train, with all of a home's amenities. But finding a park or a playground is a must for them.

"I have a house in Massachusetts. I probably see it once a year, maybe for a week or two," Stuart said. "But, more or less, we travel on the train. It's year-round, basically. ... So really, home is wherever the circus takes me."

One disadvantage is that the kids do not have a lot of friends to play with. But the family is always together.

"I think there's a lot of people who travel for their jobs, that are not fortunate enough to travel with family, where this job allows us to be able to do that," Mary Stuart said.

The Stuarts believe that their lives and the lives of their children have been enhanced by the real-world learning experiences.

"Instead of just reading it in books, they're going to see these things, and to me, that's more fulfilling," Mike Stuart explained.

Citing privacy reasons, the circus did not allow CNN to see the train.

With any traveling family, there will inevitably be spiritual needs. Sister Dorothy Fabritze is a full-time circus worker and Catholic nun who holds religion classes, working across cultures, sharing the circus lifestyle.

"I saw that these people needed to find that they too were a parish, that they too were a community," she explained. "We can support and walk with each other in this journey that we call life."

Fabritze arranges for clergy to visit the circus weekly. She's a former missionary who spent 16 years in Papua New Guinea. Here, she says, she hopes to be a biblical presence amid the glitzy backdrop and colorful characters, from acrobats to clowns to animal trainers.

"Some come asking for Bible study. We'll do that. Some come forward and say, 'My child needs the sacrament, with confession and communion. Can you help me?' Of course I can," she explained.

For about two years, Fabritze also worked backstage, opening and closing the curtain between acts, for 800 shows in two years. She remembers those times as "God moments."

"They knew that I'd be there, and they would just come over and in the darkened area just talk to me about whatever they wanted to talk, and wonderful things happened. Wonderful spiritual things happened, just because I was there," she said.

And although things may sometimes seem, quite literally, a bit upside down here, it's just life under the big top at the greatest show on Earth.

All About Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

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