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ON THE ROAD DURING THE ERA OF GREATEST PERIL FOR THE ONE INDISPENSABLE AMERICAN SHOW
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
“I’ve trained lions and tigers and jaguars and bears,” Hoover said. “Bears are the hardest animals to work with because they don’t have any facial expressions. You can’t tell what they’re going to do. You can read a lion or a tiger, but a bear gives you a deadpan. Polar bears are the worst.
“I start a cat when it’s a year and a half. Out of the cub stage but not mature. They mature about four. The first thing I do is put the cat into the big cage by himself. After two or three days, once it’s used to the cage, I’ll step in and watch the reaction. If he charges, I’ve got a piece of bamboo, and I’ll pop him on the end of the nose. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he won’t charge. If he doesn’t, I’ll sit inside the door, smoke a cigar, and read the newspaper.
“Then I’ll bring in a stand. He’ll avoid it, but after a day or two he’ll get curious and check it out. So I’ll dice up some stew meat, put it on the end of a stick, and, using that, lead him right up to the stand. That’ll take about two days. Now I want to get his forefeet on the stand. I hold the meat on the end of the stick right above him, so he’ll have to put his forefeet on the stand to reach it. Then I’ll put two stands in the cage and hold the meat so he has to climb up on both of them to reach it. Soon he immediately goes to the stand when he enters the ring because he knows he’ll get fed there. After a while you can get rid of the meat because he’s gotten used to following the end of the stick. From then on you just use variations of the basic technique to get him to do different tricks.
“Once the cat’s trained to get up on a stand, I’ll use him in the act for a season just as a scenery cat so he can get used to the traveling, the band, the crowds, the change of water. I get a chance to study the cat and see how smart he is, see what he’s good for. They all can’t be taught to roll a barrel or jump through a hoop. It takes two seasons to get a cat fully into the act.
“European trainers break cats like they were breaking horses. I never use force. I don’t want to break the animal’s spirit. Also, if you use force, if you hit him day after day, after a while he realizes that’s as hard as you can hit. I weigh a hundred and sixty pounds; the average lion weighs five hundred pounds. You’ve always got to keep up the bluff that you’re strong and the lion’s weak.
“Every prop I use helps keep that bluff. If a cat gets out of hand, all I do is flick it with a light whip on the tender spot on the tip of its nose. If he charges, I hold up a chair; suddenly there are four points in front of him, as he loses his train of thought. If I shoot the gun, that also breaks the train of thought.
“It’s not necessary for a cat to be mean to attack a trainer. I’ve had fairly good-natured cats sneak up behind me like a house cat playing, stalking its owner. Clarence was a good-natured cat, never got tough but never mated either. John-John and Pharaoh don’t like to leave their cages and come into the ring. Then, after the act’s over, John-John doesn’t want to leave the ring. Radar goes up into a stretch on two different-size platforms and sometimes won’t get down. Usually a cat gets touchy at about six or seven; you might take him out of the act then. But Clifford is fifteen, sixteen years old and is in perfect physical condition. He just doesn’t do any jumping tricks anymore.
“It’s a good life for the cats. In the wild state their life span is about ten years; they get exercise but not enough food. In a zoo their life span is about fifteen to sixteen years; they get enough food but not enough exercise. In a circus their life span is about twenty to twenty-five years; they get enough food and enough exercise. It’s a pretty good life for the trainer too.”
“Hello, Count,” said Stinson.
The Count tipped his top hat and went into the big top to start the evening show. Soon his amplified voice, echoing under the tent, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. . . .” The band started playing. Hoover, who had been standing in the wings, chewing gum and absently staring at a box of popcorn spilled on the ground in front of him, did a skip and, head down, dashed into the big top. The audience cheered.
The band slid easily from number to number, keeping on top of the two hundred cues in the show, playing paso dobles (quick 2/4 Spanish tunes) for teeterboard acts, waltzes or ballads for flying acts, fast mambos or show tunes for jugglers, plus traditional music (“The Ringmaster,” “Thunder and Blazes,” “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite,” “The Colossus of Columbia”) along with modern popular songs.