in 1979, while living in maine, i met a man who trained wild cats for a living. his name was, and still is to the best of my knowledge, alan gold. at this time he had 4 african lions and 3 tigers (2 siberian males and one bengal female) and was performing at one of the animal parks in the area. my ex-wife, carol, and i used to go to the park on sunday afternoons in time to catch his last show and hang out for a few hours after the park closed.
part of alan’s job, besides performing shows throughout the day, was feeding the other animals in the park. which meant that when i was there, i was feeding the other animals in the park.
i really enjoyed hanging out with alan and his big cats and seeing them work together.
i have never been around animal trainers before, but alan appeared to be very competent and surely loved his cats.
i was always amazed at how well he worked with them and the comfort level he had achieved with the big critters.
alan’s, back was a mess of scars from having the animals claws on him (one of the bits he and the cats did was one of them would put their paws on his shoulders and he would walk around with the cat’s upper body-weight on him while they walked in tandem around the arena). being a circus-type entertainer, alan wore a leather vest with no shirt and the scars were quite visible, even from a distance.
but, as he explained it, it was just a hazard of the job and not any intention of the cat to harm him; they just happen to have really sharp, long claws.
another thing i learned from alan about the cats is that performing cats cannot be treated like zoo cats; they have to retain more of their wild-edge, as any performer might. so, hanging out with alan’s cats was closer to the real thing than just going to the zoo.
when he was preparing to feed his cats their wild nature was quite apparent by their attitudes: growling, pacing and pouncing as they impatiently awaited their meals.
i found it quite exhilarating and exciting!
despite the cats being a little on the wild side, it did not take long for them to become acquainted with carol and me.
i had, in fact, been in the cage with two of his young lions and had my hand in one of his adult lion’s mouths. that was a moment i will never forget.
the tigers were a different story altogether: tigers, as alan explained it, are big and bad and they know they are big and bad and like to remind you that they are big and bad. while the lions were kept behind barred cages, the tigers were retained in cages made of expansion metal (mesh), so we could only get so close to the tigers.
not that 125/thousandths is a great distance, but it kept me from touching them and them from killing me.
queenie, his bengal tiger, however, did everything she could to lessen that distance. she was a real sweetheart and wanted to love us long before we got near her. she would even notice us sitting in the crowd during the show, which didn’t always make for a good show. when we would arrive at his compound after the show she would start to growl (affectionately?) and rub against the cage in anticipation of us visiting, 100 feet before we got near her.
she may have only been a small tiger (about 350 pounds), but she still had that tiger attitude that alan told us of. she may be sedate and loving one minute, then remember she’s a tiger and slap me just to remind me that she’s the bigger of the two. not meaning to kill me, just reminding me that she’s the superior one. but, with claws backed by legs with all the muscle, she could have surely killed me just by a quick wipe of here massive paw. i believe this is how roy horn received his wounds, which almost brought about his death a few years ago; it wasn’t anger on the cat’s part; it was only a reminder that the cat was really the boss.
still, it was always such a treat to have queenie rub up against me, even through the mesh, and poost (i have also heard it called pooft), a kind of voluntary purr, as i blew my breath into her face and wished, that just for a second, the mesh was not between us and i could wrap my arms around her massive neck and hold her like a child hugging the family pet.
after he fed his cats, we would feed the other animals in the park: beginning with the park’s big cats.
the park’s lions were my favorites of the cats that were not alan's!
it was the park’s male lion that i had my finger wrapped around its tooth; i was scratching him on the chin and couldn’t help but pull up his lip and do it. this while the enclosure was wide open and nothing between us but air and alan was collecting their meat from the cart.
moments later, alan passed me a pile of horsemeat, while the two lions stood there patiently waiting for us to feed them; far from the frenzy only minutes before when we were feeding his cats, who would have taken us down just to get to their food. nope! these two stood there as if to say: “are we going to have to stand here all day before you feed us? ‘cause... well... we’ll just stand here all day if we need to!”
the cat in the next enclosure, a male jaguar, would not get the same intimate feeding. we carefully slid it into a narrow slit between the floor of the cage and the cage itself. the cat never moved from its perch high in the corner of its enclosure, but not even alan would get near that cat.
there were other instances at the park with other animals that stand out in my memory: being licked by a full-grown male brown bear and being hugged by a baby black bear are just a couple of the standout moments.
i also had some pretty cool cat experiences at the sierra safari zoo when i was working for radio station koh in reno. periodically, i would go up there to do live remotes from the zoo, and to bring back a story for the next day. i got a great recording of a mountain lion purring while i stroked it’s back. a white tiger also licked me, which is a lot like being licked by a cheese grater! and the liger, who died just last year, tried to piss on me. but, the coolest of the cat experiences at the reno zoo was having two baby leopards play on my lap and fall asleep, one on my lap and the other on my shoulder while i sat thinking that in another year, they could have me for lunch.
i became friends with many of the animals at sierra safari zoo: wallabies; sloths; camels (i’ve been friends with a lot of camels, being the announcer of the international camel races in virginia city and riding one during the tournament of roses parade in 2000); coatamundis that ran over and around me like i was their long lost father and a ring-tailed lemur, named maya, who sat upon my head, tugging at the antenna on my cell phone while i called-in my remote. at one point, after the remote, laurie, the zookeeper said: “oh monty, i wish could see this! she’s grooming you! she must really love you!” laurie explained that lemurs have serrated teeth and she was pulling my hair, which was quite long at the time, through them. i wanted to take her home with me the moment i saw her and hearing laurie tell me of the grooming put me over the edge with the desire to have her as my own.
female lemur and twins
in the habitat, along with maya, was the real reason why i was there in the first place: a mama lemur and her baby clinging tightly to hear chest, which maya was quite proud of in her midwifery-self.
i could have taken them all home!