Tigers are just 500lb pussy cats to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus headliner Sara Houcke.
Tigers are just 500lb pussy cats to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus headliner Sara Houcke. Whipless, armed only with a glittery costume, a flowing mane of blonde tresses and a killer body, Houcke fearlessly steps into a steel mesh cage and faces off with eight fierce felines aching for a bite of fresh meat. We may call it bloodletting—she calls it a day’s work.
“Grrrrrr!” Sara snarls, sounding sublimely sexy and deadly ferocious in the same breath. If we were in a bedroom I wouldn’t know whether to undress or pick up a chair and try to fend her off. They call her the tiger whisperer because she whuffles to the big cats in their own savage language. “They do it to each other,” Houcke explains. “It’s a greeting sound that lets them know that everything is ok.”
Houcke has been touring with her kitties for six years but she has been soothing savage beasts her whole life. Born in Torquay, England into a circus family seven generations deep, Houcke was dazzling audiences as soon as she could walk, performing with zebras, rhinos, elephants and something called a zebus (an Asiatic ox).
Named after her aunt who also had a tiger-act, it seems Sarah (pronounced Soa-ra) was destined to work in the company of cats. She has a special bond with the beasts finding them much easier to understand than men. “I know exactly what’s going on with them, how they are doing, or if one’s sick or one’s not feeling good. I totally know their characters,” she explains.
“They are wild animals, and you’ll never be able to take the wild out of them. You have to watch their every step, but for me I don’t see tigers as ferocious or mean,” adds Houcke. She has the utmost respect for the razor-clawed creatures and she considers them more than just exotic pets, insisting that each of them has a unique personality. “Vanya is feisty and she can be a bitch. If anybody comes too close to her, she’ll turn around and show her teeth to them,” says Houcke of one of her favorite golden tabbies.
Though Houcke’s tigers obey her commands as if she were a drill sergeant, hers is hardly a dominatrix act. Instead she plays the role of mistress coaxing and cajoling her tigers to rear up on their hind legs and swat their paws or roll over each other. “I go and approach them and they snuggle up to me and put their head on my shoulder and I kiss them on their noses.” The intimacy Houcke has with her tigers is unique and it sets her act apart from the confrontational style of traditional tiger shows. Though far more subtle, Houcke’s approach is far more dangerous than your typical whip and roar fest. Unlike the competition, she actually feeds ravenous tigers meat right out of her hand and not from the tip of a stick.
Lest you think that making deadly animals look cuddly isn’t playing with fire, one needs only to recount the story of Richard Chipperfield, one of Houcke’s immediate predecessors at Ringling Bros. While posing for pictures at a publicity event in 98’ with Arnie, a normally calm 350-pound tiger he had raised from a cub, the wild cat suddenly tore a chunk out of Chipperfield’s skull. The trainer survived but never fully recovered. And then of course there was the mid-act mauling of Roy Horn (of the Vegas duo Siegfried & Roy).
Houcke, who has never been injured, remains steadfastly fearless when it comes to tigers. “I stay out of conflict and I don’t push myself onto a tiger when they’re not in a good mood” she says. Bizarrely when it comes to insects Houcke is “super-chicken.” “If a bug even touches me, I freak out,” she confesses, squirming just at the thought.
Unattached and on the prowl, Houcke gets subjected many of the lamest pick-up attempts. “Men ask me if I can tame them,” she says with disgust. “It takes a lot to impress me, you definitely would have to like animals.” Grrr.
This article first ran in Rev Magazine
Copyright © Mike Dojc, 2006
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