Sacramento kids get close-up look at circus lions, tigers

09/08/2012 12:00 AM

09/07/2012 10:24 PM

More than 100 Natomas Charter School elementary students got a behind-the-scenes glimpse Friday of the new Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show, "Dragons."

Walking single file at Power Balance Pavilion, first- and second-graders from the school took front-row seats to the only show in North America to use both lions and tigers.

Nine rows above, students from Sacramento State sat with their cellphones out, taking photos. Karen Bakula, a professor of communications, had told her students they could get extra credit to see how the press reports on live events.

Upon seeing the children, big cat trainer Alexander Lacey asked, "Can't we get them a little closer?"

As the boys and girls walked toward the ring, Bakula asked her college students who would like to get a better look. Every one of them raised their hands – and then marched down single file like their young counterparts.

First into the ring came Bella, an Indian tiger only 2 years old. Lacey told Bella to go left. Bella went left. Now right. Now sit. Now stand.

"Good girl, Bella," Lacey said repeatedly. The students watched quietly.

Eventually, Lacey had nine tigers and lions around him, including one male, Masai. At times the animals would swat at each other and wander off, looking like a bunch of, well, cats.

When asked how he gets the cats to listen, Lacey told a Natomas Charter student, "The cats behave because they like me, just like you like your teacher, right?"

He continued, saying the cats all get along in the arena just fine, like students in a classroom, but they don't always play together, like students at recess.

The cats jumped across platforms and displayed themselves on podiums. One lion flopped down next to Lacey, waiting for a belly rub before leaving the stage.

Lacey spoke to the animals in both German and English for different commands.

"German is very short and direct," he said, explaining that the cats can hear the German commands more easily when the audience cheers and applauds. He said the cats have short names for the same reason.

Training lions and tigers presents a different challenge, Lacey said, as a trainer cannot introduce new types of cats into the group at any time.

"If you have a show with five lions, you can introduce a new lion a few years later, no problem," Lacey said. But with lions and tigers, the two must grow up near one another when they are cubs. After 2 1/2 years, the cats are separated to prevent any mixed breeding.

"We had a mix once," Lacey said, laughing. "We turned around for five minutes and then 3 1/2 months later we had 'liger' cubs."

Those animals are now traveling in a separate show in England, he said.

One student asked if the animals get sick.

"They do, but more often they're just faking it, like when you tell your mum you don't want to go to school," Lacey said. On those days, the animals get a break.

"We want them to be excited to perform," Lacey said, "which means never forcing them."

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