By Eric Reinagel
Published August 22, 2006 11:40 pm
Clayton Rosaire is the trainer of The Big Cat Encounter at the Crawford County Fair, which is set up behind the Youth Show Arena. The free shows run daily at 3, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Meadville, PA – Clayton Rosaire shaves his legs and arms. It’s just a small sign of the respect he has for the tigers he has worked with since he was 15.
“The cats don’t really like the hair,” said Clayton, who explained they like to lick the salt off his body. “That’s part of my deal with them. I’d rather them doing it nice than getting grossed out when they’re doing it.”
It’s only natural for Clayton to worry about a 700-pound tiger, which could accidentally mistake him for prey, getting grossed out from licking his hair. His mother, Kay, who started The Big Cat Habitat Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Sarasota, Fla., instilled in her son a deep respect for animals.
Clayton is quick to share with the audience this same lesson at the three shows he performs daily at the Crawford County Fair.
Though working with animals was a natural career path for Clayton, his life could have taken a different turn if it weren’t for his grandfather falling from acrobatic rings.
Derrick Rosaire was known as “Wonder Boy” in Europe. But at the age of 19 he fell during a performance and shattered his back. Doctors expected he would never walk again, but he did thanks to a surgery that involved fusing his shin bone to his spine.
Derrick, however, couldn’t tumble like he used to and instead turned toward his love of animals to make a living. Derrick, who lived in England at the time, started a comedy routine titled Derrick Rosaire and Tony the Wonder Horse, which eventually earned him guest spots on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
During these trips to America, Derrick fell in love with the country and eventually moved his family to live on a farm in western Pennsylvania between Erie and Waterford on Route 19.
He would later train animals like Gentle Ben the Bear, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion and animals for the television show “Daktari.” Meanwhile, Derrick’s children, including Clayton’s mother, grew up around the animals.
“Everybody kind of fell in love with a different animal,” said Clayton, explaining how his mother came to love lions.
At the age of 15, Clayton first entered a cage with a tiger. The 26-year-old now performs at a dozen fairs every year.
“I know how smart they are and I know what they’re capable of, and I also know how caring and how great they can be, but you have to have a lot of respect for the animal. You have to remember what they are. That’s part of the majesty about them, that they are so powerful, they’re such amazing predators,” said Clayton. “To be around an animal so powerful, to be in their presence like that, just makes you feel neat.”
“That’s a big problem with people, they always think of animals as people. They’re not people, they’re animals. They think of certain things, they don’t realize if they bite you tomorrow you might not be there the day after.”
While Clayton hasn’t sustained any “major injuries,” his mother was attacked by a tiger during a show. She survived, but needed more than 85 stitches. A lion probably saved her life that day by attacking the tiger and giving her enough time to reach safety.
“They had real close bond. He saw the tiger hurting his mom. He went right down and attacked the tiger,” said Clayton, who was quick to point out the incident was an accident and part of the risk of working with wild animals. “Everybody has their close calls, everybody has accidents, everybody gets a scratch, a bite once in a while, it just happens. Just like working with a horse, every once in a while they’re going to step on your toe. They’re not trying to eat your toe, they’re just being a horse, same with these guys.”
Eric Reinagel can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org