Kelly Nankervis, Midland, Michigan, Daily News
Spectators survived the toothy Big Cat Encounter on Tuesday evening, none looking more relieved than a wide-eyed little dog in a girl’s arms and a goldfish held captive in a plastic baggie.
The show, featuring tigers Conan, Czar, Noel, Kira and a white Bengal tiger named Samson along with handler Clayton Rosaire, wows fairgoers at 2, 6 and 8 p.m. daily near the Gerstacker Fair Center.
Rosaire, 26, alone in the caged-in arena explained that he’s a ninth-generation animal trainer.
“That’s means my family’s been doing this for a long time,” he said, adding his parents already had big cats when he was born, and that he started working with them when he was 7 years old. “I’ve had just about every accident you could have.”
Rosaire stressed the cats are predators, and the sad situations they came from: Conan, whom the crowd met first, was rescued from an illegal breeding and selling operation, just like a puppy mill, with owners who would sell the cats to anyone. Other tigers in the show were rescued from people who bought too many exotic animals and couldn’t afford to feed them.
Conan, just like his name implies, is big — 700 pounds — and the biggest of the tigers Rosaire worked with Tuesday. He slowly padded past Rosaire and up to a stand, making a slow and careful hop onto it. The move placed him eye to eye with people in the front, and he stared them down, his tail swishing and sunlight glowing on his orange striped fur.
Rosaire trains the animals using positive enforcement with lots of treats, and said they really like baby talk. Conan showed his personality by smacking Rosaire a few times with his big, swishy tail.
“Brat,” Rosaire said lovingly. The two carried on the tail-swishing antics throughout the show.
The other tigers soon joined them: females Kira and Noel, along with males Czar, who is Conan’s little brother, and Samson, one at a time. They sat on stools positioned around the outside edge of the arena, nearest to spectators. Rosaire signaled them, and they all stretched out their bodies, placing their front paws on the area walls in a stripey salute.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is my family,” Rosaire cried.
The show isn’t all lightning fast, and Rosaire debunked the popular myth the tigers are active creatures. They actually are pretty lazy, sleeping 18 to 20 hours each day.
“Conan’s the original couch potato,” he said to laughter of the kids and adults watching.
On a more serious note, Rosaire explained tigers in the wild are in danger because poachers can make up to $100,000 for tiger body parts on the black market. The lure of that kind of money, along with loss of habitat, has helped to lower the life span of the wild tiger to 6 to 8 years. Without those pressures, tigers can live into their late 20s.
Rosaire also pointed out the tigers’ stripes are just as unique as humans’ thumbprints, after the cats lined up next to each other on the arena floor.
Afterwards, 8-year-old Logan Wenz said Conan’s tail was one of his favorite parts of the show.
“I thought that was cool that he kept hitting him with his tail,” Logan said of Conan and Rosaire. He came the fair with his grandparents, Ron and Sharon Wenz, and a group of relatives including Katelynn, 11, Kayla, 13, Mackenzie, 10, Kelsie, 8, and Ashtin and Bryce Gandy, ages 10 and 8.
Some of the group had seen tigers before, but their big smiles and bright eyes said they still enjoyed the show.
“This is kind of a tradition,” Ron said, adding the group, with members of Midland and Bay City, has a party with a fashion show and all kinds of other fun during fair week.
After the show, spectators can pay $8 to have a photo taken with Samson, or purchase other items. All money goes to help the Big Cat Habitat, which is a sanctuary for big cats. For more information, go to www.bigcathabitat.com.
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