Saturday, June 13, 2009

Kiss of the tiger woman


Sara Houcke isn't a typical tiger tamer. The gentle 5-foot-10-inchblonde has been dubbed the Tiger Whisperer because she's more likely to cuddle or kiss than to whip or shout.

She communicates with the tigers by making a "whuffling" sound that's similar to purring.
"I'm a quiet trainer, " says Ms. Houcke, a main attraction in the130th Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "I'm doing the same things I've been doing for years with other animals."

The 24-year-old trainer grew up working elephants, camels, horses, buffaloes, zebras and rhinos with her father, Sacha. Ms. Houcke comes from seven generations of circus performers. Her first job came at age 2, when she performed in a clown act. At age 6, she rode in an elephant act, and at 11 she performed with camels.

Her career with tigers started two years ago when Ringling Bros. came to court her.
Traveling with the "Greatest Show on Earth" was her dream, but it would mean leaving her beloved home circuit in Europe.

So the recruiters asked, "What's your dream job?" That's when Ms.Houcke, at age 22, became Ringling's youngest tiger trainer.

"I was interested in working with cats because so few women were in the field, " she says. "But I worried I'd chicken out."

Her mentor, Josif Marcan, had a tiger act in the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. He tested her right away.

"I had no sooner gotten to his place when he invited me into the cage, " she says. "He wanted to make sure I wasn't afraid."

She traveled with him for three months learning the trade. Then Ringling Bros. drew up an agreement so she could use Mr. Marcan's tigers in her show.

These days, wherever her RV is parked, those eight tigers are right next to her.
Most of her day is spent caring for the cats - cleaning cages as well as feeding and training them.
Plus, she likes "just hanging out with them" and, yes, hugging and kissing them. But Ms. Houcke doesn't cuddle them all the time.

"I respect their moods, " she says. "I pet them and kiss them when they come to me and rub on my leg and purr. Then I know they want attention. If I approach them when they aren't ready, it would cause conflict."

Even Ms. Houcke can't forget that these cats are predators.

"Cats are more dangerous than elephants or horses, " she says. "You can't turn your back on a cat. Sometimes I have to in my act, but I have to stay very aware of my surroundings."

So far she's had no close calls and no injuries. And she hasn't felt fearful in the cage.
"If I was afraid, this would be the wrong job for me, " she says."The cats sense fear."

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