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No Escape Claws

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MUSIC FROM THE GOLDFINGER SOUND track blares across the arena as David Tetzlaff readies himself for the “Blanket.” Dressed in khaki pants and a brightly colored shirt, he strolls to the center of a fenced ring and plops down between Kandi and Zulu, two full-grown spotted leopards. He props his legs on Kandi and uses Zulu as a backrest. Then, as their names are called, Shadow, Honey and Sabrina pad over, one by one. When they have all snuggled in, Tetzlaff looks like a man taking his ease under a live leopard quilt. The crowd gathered at Jungle Larry’s Safari at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, gasps—at the beauty of the cats and at the audacity of their master. “It’s a dangerous trick,” says Tetzlaff, “but when it works, it looks spectacular.”

As one of only a handful of trainers in the world capable of pulling off this stunt, Tetzlaff, 28, is being compared to such superstars as Gunther Gebel-Williams, recently of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, who retired last year. “David’s leopard act is as good as, if not better than, Gebel-Williams’s,” says Wade Burck, a former tiger trainer for Ringling. “He’s totally dedicated and gentle with his animals.”

Born into a family of animal trainers, Tetzlaff has had close encounters with big cats since his childhood in Ohio and Florida. When he was a schoolboy, a lion cub slept on his bed and became so protective of him that he snarled whenever David’s mother, Nancy, came to tuck David in. His late father was Larry Tetzlaff, who 27 years ago founded the Safari, which operates during the summer in Ohio and during the winter, as Jungle Larry’s Zoological Park, in Naples, Fla. The 52-acre Florida spread is now home to 150 animals—among them elephants, antelopes, monkeys, lemurs and reptiles. David’s favorites are the 22 show cats: lions, tigers, leopards and a black panther named Java who walks on hind legs and jumps through a 15-inch hoop. “Java’s rotten to the core,” Tetzlaff says without a hint of rancor, “and very dangerous. She’s the star. She thinks she’s the Queen of Sheba.”

A man who confesses to being “hyper and laid-back at the same time,” Tetzlaff enjoys the feral instincts of his svelte friends. “A leopard can kill a young zebra and drag it 20 feet up into a tree,” he says. “They have the strength to carry you around the ring, and they have 14 ways to outsmart you. When you forget they can do that, they lose respect for you.” Tetzlaff has the battle scars to prove it. In an incident eight years ago, “a leopard decided he wanted my jacket,” says Tetzlaff. “I shouldn’t have been wearing that jacket around him because this particular cat was attracted to loose clothing. He chewed my arm from wrist to shoulder, but he severed the nerves, so I didn’t feel anything.” Art Kozlik, the park manager, jammed a stick down the leopard’s throat and Tetzlaff got free. He had his arm stitched at a nearby hospital and returned to the ring the same day—so the cat could see he was in control.

Tetzlaff has been tutoring the big cats since he was 18. He gets to the park at 7:30 A.M. and, after the day’s four shows, personally slices up the beasts’ dinner: several pounds of chicken and beef apiece. “Meat is the reward for positive behavior,” he explains. “Training requires taking an animal’s natural instinct and developing it into a trick. Leopards, for example, are tree dwellers, so it’s natural for them to walk ropes. But control takes years. They don’t like to be mollycoddled or treated like pets.”

Tetzlaff’s wife, Mindy, 28, and even their son, Sasha, 2, share his passion. “The cats,” says Mindy, “are part of our family. Sasha’s first word was daddy, and his second was tiger.” Although Tetzlaff has had an offer from a circus, he is committed to his animals. “To work for a giant circus would be an unequaled rush,” he admits, “but there are too many spectators, and they’re too distant. Here, a few hundred people enjoy each show, and the intimate feeling means a lot to me.” For Tetzlaff, it’s not the size of the tent that counts; it’s the size of the cats. “Leopards are my drug,” he says, “and I’m addicted.”