Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ “Legends” show parades into the PNC Arena Wednesday through Sunday with trumpeting elephants, majestic horses, high-flying stunts and awe-inspiring feats.
Also along for the ride: Alexander Lacey and his Big Cats – 19 lions and tigers, and a leopard named Mogli. We spoke to the big-cat trainer about growing up around animals, judging their whims, knowing when it’s time to retire and responding to critics.
Q. How did your family get into working with big cats?
A. My parents owned two zoos in England. In their opinion, the animals needed a little more to do and enjoyed interaction with the trainers. They ended up in the circus business because they became good big-cat trainers. I’ve been around animals since I was 4 years old – baby tigers, lions, chimps, bear cubs. When I was 12, I began helping out with the animals. The first time I worked in front of the audience I was 17.
Q. How do you learn to work with such large animals without getting hurt?
A. They’re wild animals. People think they’re not dangerous anymore. A tiger or lion seeing a person in the wild would run the other way. Our cats aren’t scared of people and maybe more dangerous because of it.
My parents said to me, “It’s a way of life. It’s not a job. We have to be here 365 days a year. Your life revolves around the animals.”
In the beginning, you’ve got to do all the horrible jobs. Clean up behind the cats, feed and water them. That weeds out the people who are after a life in the spotlight.
I know my animals’ character, if they’re in a good mood or bad mood. The secret is to be one step ahead. Don’t force an animal to perform or do something that’s not within limits.
Q. So can you tell by their demeanor who may not be up for performing that day?
A. In general, tigers and lions are creatures of habit. They like routine. In the wild, they’ll hunt in the same area, drink from the same waterholes. Life revolves around the season. They like the routine of the circus where we wake up, practice, feed, get cleaned and watered and they have the rest of the day to play, sleep or exercise. You don’t have cats that don’t want to perform often. Normally if we leave cats out, it’s because a female is in season. I’ve never asked a cat to do something if I think they’re not going to do it. I’ve never asked them to jump 20 feet when they can only jump 12. You can never come to blows. My big male lion who was born and bred by my family weighs 800 pounds and I weigh 180 pounds. I have to find clever ways of getting him to work and enjoy the performance.
Q. Have you been injured?
A. I haven’t. People ask me that all the time. They want to see scars and bites. I have a few scratches, but it is usually from cubs when I hand-rear them. We don’t declaw them or take their teeth out.
Q. The circus is under fire from animals rights groups. You obviously have a close relationship with these animals. How do you respond?
A. People need to get educated about the wild. There really is literally not much of a wild left. There’s only 22,000 lions on the whole continent of Africa. Tiger numbers are more pathetic. All our cats have been born in captivity. We don’t have any inbreeding. Ringling Brothers provides a fantastic environment for tigers and lions with veterinarians on standby 24 hours a day. They give them enough room to eat, sleep, play and reproduce. All of our cats live to be in their early 20s and have a retirement plan. Because of my family’s commitment alone, we’ve managed to breed 400 lions or tigers that wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our efforts. On top of that, I don’t think any educated person would want to spend their life looking after animals if it was detrimental to the animals.
Q. How do you know when one is ready to retire?
A. Just like people, they have different health concerns. Because they are pure bred, we end up with healthy, strong animals that work right up into their last day. As parents get older, their offspring take over from them. I have a female named Tara who is 19. She used to jump 16 feet. Once she got to be 12, we bred her. Three years later, her cubs were performing alongside her. On her 16th birthday, I decided it’s a little much for Tara to be jumping so far. She can do all the kissing, cuddling and easy stuff. As animals get older, we make the routine easier for them. We don’t retire them at the sanctuary unless they have problems like arthritis. ... They’re very active animals. It would be unfair to put them in a sanctuary where they’d do nothing for the rest of their lives.