Rosaire’s Circus Tigers

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'Big cats' is understatement

By Steve Sharp of the Daily Times staff
Thursday, July 10, 2008 12:51 PM CDT

Clayton Rosaire of Sarasota, Fla., is shown Wednesday working with one of the tigers he brought to the 2008 Jefferson County Fair. Rosaire operates the Big Cat Encounter exhibit. Show times are today at 2 and 6 p.m.; Friday at 11:45 a.m., 3 and 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. Big Cat Encounter is free with paid admission to the fair. (JOHN HART/Daily Times)

JEFFERSON – Rarely are the boasts of those who operate circus sideshows or fair attractions understatements, but when the owners of this year's Jefferson County Fair act "Big Cat Encounter" named their show, they may have sold it short. These felines are giants.

Before Clayton Rosaire's five tigers were even out of their high-tech, air-cushioned travel trailer – "the tiger limosine" Rosaire called it Wednesday morning – they had already caught the eyes of many across the fair park. People of all ages came from every direction to ask when the show would start.

Rosaire, not-so-fresh off a 17-hour drive from Lubbock, Texas, to Jefferson, yawned that he would check with fair organizers and a performance schedule would be announced.

"I fell in love with animals at a very early age, Rosaire, 28, told the Daily Times, "but my mom wouldn't let me around tigers, so I had horses. I had to wait until I was 15 years old to work around the bigger cats. But no matter how much time you spend around (the tigers), you still have to remember that they are animals."

Rosaire comes from nine generations who have worked with animals. His mother, Kay Rosaire, has more than 30 years experience working with and caring for exotic animals. She founded the Sarasota, Fla.-based Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, of which Clayton Rosaire is now a big part.

Not only does Rosaire's love of animals come through when he talks about them, his great respect for them is also apparent.

He only takes five large cats on the road with him during the summer, while about 30 remain at the Florida sanctuary. He said he chooses the five he believes are best-suited to being around people and traveling.

"We're a rescue sanctuary," Rosaire said. "We take care of big cats that silly people bought as pets – and buying them as pets is about the dumbest thing in the world."

Rosaire said that, particularly in Texas in recent years, people have roadside stands set up from which they peddle tiger kittens. These usually sell for about $1,000 apiece.

"People buy them on the side of the road. These cubs are extremely cute and fuzzy. But then people realize that these cubs can gain one pound per day in their first year. They can max out at 700 pounds."

The largest cat in the fair's Big Cat Encounter show is a 700-pound male. The smallest is a 300-pound female. The two oldest are brothers, Conan and Czar, both age 12.

Rosaire operates the Big Cat Encounter road show primarily in the summer – Jefferson County's is fair number 8 of 10 in North America – and lets the cats have an extended rest during the winter in Florida. Rosaire said he could, technically, take the cats almost anywhere in the world, year-round, however.

"They can handle tropical climates and they can live in extremely cold temperatures, such as 15 degrees below zero," Rosaire said. "But my guys are pansies. They are total sissies. If it would get too warm they would probably say, "Turn on the air conditioning, would ya?'."

Rosaire said the tricks the big cats perform during the Big Cat Encounter shows – jumping, sitting, lying down – are nothing they wouldn't do in the wild. He said the only difference is that the animals are trained to do these tricks in sequence.

The Rosaire's Big Cat Habitat Web site states, "Their unique style of gentle handling, praise and treats encourages the natural behaviors of big cats on cue and in a sequence of the trainer's choice. Clayton is one of the few men in the world who can put his head in a lion's mouth."

Rosaire said on some days a big cat might "wake up on the wrong side of the bed," and just not be in the mood for performing.

"Then we will give him the day off," Rosaire said matter-of-factly.

He also said he likes to feed the animals in a manner that imitates the way tigers eat in the wild.

"The amount of food they eat changes from winter to summer," Rosaire said. "In the summer, they eat from eight to 12 pounds of food each, per day and in the winter they eat 20 to 25 pounds each."

Rosaire said he feeds the cats only once a day, in an effort to replicate the way they might kill once a day in the jungle, then feast.

"They can eat 90 pounds at one sitting in the wild," he said. "They kill an animal and then they gorge themselves. Then they go and sleep for 18 to 20 hours a day. They are lazy."

Rosaire acknowledged he has been injured while working with his tigers. He said they have clawed him accidentally many times. Some incidents, he suspects, might not have been mistakes. He did not mention any serious injuries, however.

Despite the risks, Rosaire said he could never imagine doing any other job.

"We like to do this and show people how amazing these animals are," he said. "It's sad, because years ago, all the big circuses had so many beautiful animals – they were traveling zoos. Now, because of animal rights activists, it doesn't happen anymore and kids miss out on these beautiful animals. Animals bring out the best in people and if people see our show, maybe it will make them want to make a donation to the World Wildlife Federation or some local sanctuary that rescues animals – maybe the Humane Society."

Rosaire stressed the cats at his sanctuary and in the show are the products of rescues.

"People don't realize how bad the tiger problem is in the U.S.," he said. "There are more captive tigers in Texas than in the wild in the entire world. These animals shouldn't be bred as glamour pets."

There is a comment box there so please write and let the reporter know that you do not approve of this abusive kind of entertainment.  They do not rescue cats.  They breed them.  Kay was the guest speaker (thanks to USDA) at their conference on Big Cat Care and she advised that the way to train tigers is to "poke 'em real hard with a pitchfork to show 'em who's boss."

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

Sign our petition to protect tigers from being farmed here:

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