Circus felines to perform at Sleep Train Arena

Alexander Lacey calls himself a big cat lover.

And apparently his lions, tiger and leopard like him, too.

Lacey, 38, calmly but firmly commanded the big performers using a combination of English, German and hand signals from within a steel cage habitat containing the 12 cats traveling with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

During a brief media visit Thursday, Lacey, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, directed the cats mostly with his voice alone, only occasionally rapping a prod on a stool to urge along the 500- to 750-pounds cats.

“If you were to come in here, they would rip you to pieces,” said Lacey to a group of reporters standing outside the cage.

Lacey and his cats are set to thrill audiences when the circus opens Friday at Sleep Train Arena. It will run through Monday before heading to Stockton next weekend. The “Legends” show also features the China National Acrobatic Troupe, equestrian stunts, a high-octane trapeze performance and, of course, clowns.

Lacey, originally from Nottingham, England, comes from a family of cat trainers and breeders. He’s been around big cats since he was a boy, before making his stage debut at age 17. The cats performing with Lacey in the U.S. and his family in Europe have all been reared since birth. The youngest of the tigers performing are the ninth generation raised by the Lacey family. Training begins when they are 8 months old.

“Before that time, it’s like a kid in kindergarten, they just want to play,” Lacey said.

After two years, they’re ready for their first performance.

He likened seeing one of his young cats on stage to a parent seeing their kid playing pee-wee football for the first time.

The workload for new performers starts light. Over the years, their performance is increased as older cats’ duties are lightened, he said.

As Lacey allowed three of the tigers to roam their common area, it’s clear even the slightly older cats have plenty of play left in them. The cats sparred, tussled and jostled over food and just for fun. After pawing at a large pool of water, one tiger eventually jumped in. Soon, it had the company of another tiger.

Circuses with animal performers have taken heat amid concerns about the possible mistreatment of the animals.

“Bears, elephants, tigers, and other animals do not voluntarily ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire. They don’t perform these and other difficult tricks because they want to; they perform them because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t,” reads a statement from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA plans a protest on Friday evening as the circus prepares for its opening show.

Lacey called his cats “happy and content” and said they live long lives.

But, just like humans, big cats occasionally have bad days, he said.

“I’ve spent so much time with them, I know when they are in a bad mood,” Lacey said. When they’re not in a good mood – which isn’t often – they don’t perform, Lacey said.

On Thursday, he sounded like an overworked parent as he called out the cats’ names to get them to stop roughhousing.

“They don’t really fight,” he said. “There are some that are troublemakers.”