Tiger trainer leads his friends to Scope this week
By ROY A. BAHLS, The Virginian-Pilot
© February 20, 2007
TIGER TRAINER Tabayara “Taba” Maluenda knows what it’s like to be surrounded by a dozen Bengal tigers. He knows one bite from those glistening fangs or a swipe from one of those massive paws could be lethal.
Maluenda also knows what it’s like to hug one of his 500-pound friends.
“It is the most emotional thing to be able to hug a tiger. They either care for you or they don’t. If they allow you to hug them, or they show affection toward you, it’s genuine affection. It’s not with an agenda.”
Maluenda and his big cats will rule the ring at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus starting Wednesday at Norfolk’s Scope.
Rhino, Isis, Julie and the rest will be leaping, rolling, hopping, roaring and purring during the performances.
“Absolutely,” Maluenda, a sixth-generation circus performer said during an interview last week from Richmond, through an interpreter. “They do purr because this is a natural behavior. Even though they are big cats, they still have things in common with home cats.”
Purring usually shows they are calm and pleased, but there are times when they let him know they are unhappy.
“When they roar, it’s really a way for them to draw the line,” the
36-year-old from Chile said, “and to say to you, ‘OK, there are certain things I’m not willing to do.’” Fast facts
In the wild bengal tigers are known to be great hunters, and the only thing that hunts them are humans.
That is when Maluenda steps out of the cage and gives them time to calm down.
That “crack” sound you hear during a performance is not from a big whip. It is just a stick and a string, used as an attention-getter, he said. No pole or stick is big enough for him to dominate those tigers. Instead he relies on a reward and a “loving reinforcement” system. Some respond more to rewards while others respond more to affection and touch.
This is Maluenda’s third year with Ringling Bros. He began his career as an acrobat, but at age 13 decided what he really wanted to do after seeing a video of legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams.
Maluenda said the big cats view him as a leader because he provides for them, but he often gazes into their eyes and observes their every move.
“It is a very dangerous act. I always have to respect them for what they are.”
He’s been scratched , but he pointed out that in many professions, such as carpentry, “sometimes you get nicked.”
Maluenda mixes acrobatics into his act with back flips over tigers and handstands with tigers leaping between his legs. He said he thinks his tigers enjoy performing, and he said it’s also a good workout for them. If he notices that one doesn’t want to participate in a particular routine, he’ll find one that it can enjoy.
And what if one ever got loose during a performance? They are used to human interaction, he said, and they would probably just look for a place to hide.
The tigers are under his watchful care pretty much 24 hours a day, Maluenda said.
“They are my companions, co-workers in a way, and I have a living because of the tigers.”
Reach Roy Bahls at (757) 446-2351 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was dismayed that you would lend your hand to continue such a miserable business as making tigers to perform. As someone with 20 years experience with exotic cats, I can assure you that what you see in the ring is NOT the result of positive reinforcement. The stick and string is a reminder of the whip and that is why it is there. Tigers are ever watchful and they don’t miss a whisper, so the notion of using a whip, just to get their attention, is ridiculous. In Miami as patrons left the circus they were complaining that the trainer was hitting the cats in the face with the whip and that the cats looked drugged. The next day they had to cancel the show because they couldn’t sell enough tickets.
Time will tell, but my prediction is that the circus will continue to see a decline in attendance and at an even faster rate now that they are forcing cats back into the act. I don’t believe that the public demanded that cats be put back to work, but rather that the circus blamed the missing cats for the attendance records that were still declining. In Miami the show had to be cancelled, cats and all, after they couldn’t sell enough tickets. Online polls show that people do not want to see big cats in circus acts.
Big Cat Poll
Of 6,349 people polled, 88% said big cats should not be made to perform in circus acts. We have shared these statistics with Feld, but they continued to use elephants, which people find equally distasteful, so their business continues to sag. Even though our website is devoted to big cat issues, the number one keyword that brings people to our site is the word “games” so that indicates to me that these polls are completed by a younger audience; the same audience that Feld is trying to appeal to. Today’s child is better informed than their parents’ generation was and they don’t want to watch animal abuse, no matter how much you try to dress it up. Feld would do well to retire all of their wild animal acts.
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