Mention the name Gunther Gebel-Williams to Wade Burck, and he screws up his face like a man in pain. “Gunther who?” he inquires. Burck knows, of course, only too well. As principal wild animal trainer for the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus Red Show, the flaxen-haired, German-born Gebel-Williams, 50, may be the most famous circus performer in the world today. So where does that leave Burck, 30, tiger trainer for Ringling’s co-equal Blue Show? Overshadowed, that’s where. Yet the North Dakota native, who landed the job in January 1984, is the first American to handle big cats for Ringling Bros, since 1960. More fascinated with training his animals than performing with them, he hopes someday to own a zoo. To learn his art Burck paid dues in sweat and, literally, blood. While the risk of injury or death never retreats, the determination and zeal Burck inherited from his late father continues to brace him each time he enters the cage.
They say Clyde Beatty was the father of American animal training, but in fact when he got older he only presented the animals. He had four trainers, and one of them was a guy named Lou Regan. If Lou walked in here now, the security guards probably would throw him out. He’s just a little old grizzled guy, but he’s brilliant with animals, one of the greats. Lou’s the guy who taught me.
I met him in Florida in 1972. I had just graduated from high school in Hillsboro, North Dakota and had taken a job as an apprentice keeper at a zoo in Naples, Fla. Lou had come to the zoo to look at some tigers. He wanted to pass on his knowledge before he retired. He was working with the Clyde Bros. Shrine Circus, and he took me on as an apprentice trainer shoveling out cages for $35 a week.
It was very hard, a lot of chores, spending nights in a sleeping bag next to the animals, on call 24 hours a day. The only thing that made it bearable was the long hours with Lou in the evening, him explaining things to me. By the end of 1975 Lou was ready to turn his act over to me. He’d stand outside the cage and observe. He’d point out my mistakes, like getting too close to the animals, not paying attention to everything in there. One night he said, “Did you notice Royal?” I said, “No. What was Royal doing?” Lou said, “You better watch him tonight, kid, and let him know you’re watching, because he’s fixing to jump on you.” So I went in the next night and, holy cow, here’s Royal snarling at me. So I said, “Sit up, now. Lou tipped me off, I’m watching you.” Lou observed me for a year, till I knew everything. But you never really know everything.
When you’re dealing with wild animals, there are things you can’t prevent. Two male tigers get in a fight over a female, and they’ll try to kill each other. You’ve got to jump in the middle and break it up. You’ve got to grab a stick, grab anything, and bash the aggressor over the head. By doing that you become the aggressor, and then the tiger turns on you. I’ve got scars on both arms, my back, my legs. I’ve got 56 stitches in my chin, but those are the only stitches I’ve got. You don’t stitch up animal wounds, because they’re very prone to infection and have to be open to heal. You have to fill a needle less syringe with antiseptic and continuously flush out the wound. Here you are trying to be the big brave animal trainer, and you’re on the doctor’s table screaming. I mean, it hurts.
I accept animals on their own terms. They aren’t capable of thinking like I do, so I’ve got to think like they do. With the exception of the more exotic primates like lemurs and marmosets, I’ve trained almost everything there is to train—chimps, camels, horses, elephants, bears, you name it. Tigers are harder to train than lions, because tigers are solitary animals. Lions will follow a leader. If you teach one lion to roll over, the others will roll over. With a tiger, each one has to be taught separately. If a lion attacks you, others will join in. They’re gang fighters, pride animals. But the consolation is that the lion will cow down if you strike him. A tiger won’t. All he knows is he’s supposed to be his own leader.
People think camels are stupid. You’ve got to take a two-by-four to a camel. People say, “My God, that’s so cruel.” Well you can’t apply human emotions to animals. If you see a stud camel with his herd, he is literally beating the hell out of them every single day—biting, kicking, getting them to move away from danger. That’s the way it is with herd animals. In some respects it doesn’t seem right when a human is doing the beating. But if you were another camel you’d be doing a lot worse.
My animals are trained on a reward basis. In the old days, when there were plenty of tigers in the world, you’d just beat the animal until it either did what you wanted or attacked you. If it attacked, you’d shoot it and get another. Well, now you can’t replace them, so you better find another way of dealing with them. In modern training you do a lot of begging and pleading. You start with a piece of meat on a stick about 12 feet long, and gradually you work it down to about four and a half feet. You say, “Sorry, sorry I upset you. Here, have a piece of meat. Easy now, relax.” Of the 15 tigers in my act, there’s three I can touch, and the rest I don’t go near. If I get within six feet of them, they’ll jump on me. I’m just another tiger to them, because I deal with them as a tiger. I talk tiger talk. Blow my lips, make noises. “Poof! Poof! Roww!”
I try to give the audience the feeling that the animals and I are on equal terms. When my tigers kneel down, I kneel down beside them. I would never do that trick where the trainer sticks his head in the animal’s mouth. That would humiliate the animal, and a tiger is too beautiful for that. Another common trick is to have a tiger stand up, and you shoot it with a blank gun, and it rolls over dead. Then you drag it by the tail across the floor. But tigers aren’t something to make fun of. They’re something to sit there looking at, with your mouth wide open.
You asked how I got this scar on my chin. That was during a performance in Boston about four years ago with the Hamid-Morton Shrine Circus. I broke up a fight between two males over a female, and this one tiger grabbed me by the face, breaking my jaw. You don’t try to fight them; they’ll rip you to shreds. What you do is go limp, then they’ll start dragging you. Anyway, one of the females slapped him in the head, and he let go of me. That gave me a chance to get back on my feet. But then he came after me a second time and bit me through the shoulder, broke my collarbone and started dragging me around again. That was the only time in my life I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die, I really did. Because I had been warned if they come back at you a second time, you can pretty well kiss it goodbye.
Finally he dragged me to one side of the cage where my younger brother, Mike, who still works for me, put a stick through the cage and slid it through his jaws. Mike pushed up, and I pulled down and managed to lever him off me. I jumped up, and he turned and got on his seat like nothing happened. After that I still had an elephant act to do. So I went down to the first-aid room. They put a temporary cast on my shoulder—I had four fang wounds there, like four nail holes—and taped up my face so my jaw didn’t move, and I gave elephant commands through the side of my mouth. At 11 that night I went to the hospital, and they worked on me until about 5:30 in the morning. I had to be back at 6 to start getting the tigers and elephants ready for the next day.
I did three shows that day. Between each one I went to the hospital, and they did some more plastic surgery. That night I drove a semi trailer to the next town. I had a guy come with me because I couldn’t shift. I just drove it while he shifted. People used to tell me, “You’re too young and you’re not European, so you can’t train tigers.” I said, “Oh, yeah? Just watch me!” Now I’m here. It’s who puts the most into what they’re doing, who feels the best at the end of the day.
That’s how I was taught. You don’t get nothing for nothing. Yet the great thing about my father was that he always encouraged my two brothers and sister and me to do our own thing. My thing was always animals. When I was 11, I saw a baby mule for sale for 25 bucks. I had 10 bucks saved from my allowance, which was a quarter a week. So I asked my father if he would lend me the rest. He could have said, “You have enough animals.” We had about three acres we lived on in Hillsboro, and I already had 14 horses, 32 goats, a lot of chickens. Because the school bus came at 7, I had to get up at 4 a.m. to carry water to them, often belly-deep through the snow. But that was my choice. Because if I ever said, “Dad, I can’t get up this morning,” he would have said, “Fine, I’ll get rid of the animals.”
Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll give you the other $15 for the mule, but you’ll have to mow the lawn”—which was three acres—”for two weeks to pay it back.” So I asked myself, “Do I really want this mule that bad?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” So we went and put it in the back seat of Dad’s Oldsmobile and took it home and put it in the barn.
My father was always taking courses to improve himself. He was a teacher for 19 years before he got fed up with the school system and went into hospital administration. He formed the town ambulance squad. He was president of the North Dakota Ambulance Association. He was volunteer probation officer for Traill County. Our house was like a halfway house. I get a lot of my beliefs from my father. I saw a lot of good coming out of the kids he worked with. If he hadn’t gotten killed, he might have died young anyway because he had heart problems and high blood pressure and probably would have burned himself out.
He died in an auto accident in 1976, when he was 44. He was riding in a car with a kid he had been trying to help, and somehow the car rolled over and Dad was killed instantly. The kid was hardly even hurt.
At first I wanted to rip the kid’s throat out. Now, of course, I’ve mellowed, and I’ve heard the kid has gotten his life together. But when you think about it, I would just as soon my father got killed that way as died from a heart attack two years later. Sure, I’d love to live to be an old man. But if my time’s up, I hope I get killed in the cage, as opposed to getting hit by a car or some nut shooting me. What a great way to go, doing what you love doing.