Don't call us freaks
I had to smile when I heard the Carson & Barnes Circus - "the biggest big top in the world" - is coming to Storm Lake this season.
I imagine a lot of us while growing up have dreamed of running away with the circus. A friend I've not seen in a long time did just that.
"I like to say that circus people are very ordinary people, but with extraordinary professions."
The speaker, Patricia White, told me of her unique lifestyle over a pay phone from a street "somewhere in Iowa" some years ago. I liked her right away. Wrote up her story, and later got a chance to watch her do her thing. I do hope she's still doing it.
The Storm Lake stop is just one of some 250 towns she will visit this year as a veteran animal trainer with Carson and Barnes.
"After a while, the names blur together," she apologizes.
"Sometimes, I go weeks and weeks without knowing the name of the place I was at yesterday, or where I'll be tomorrow."
Where she was that day was Storm Lake, which played host to one of the 50th anniversary shows for the circus that year. It sported an old-fashioned "big top" a city block long, with elephants helping to pull the tent up.
Interrupted by static, passing traffic on a street who-knows-where and an occasional shout to her young son, the tamer of the big cats admitted that the life isn't as glamourous as some might expect.
"Circus people are very offended when people describe them as freaks who couldn't find anything better to do with their lives," she said. "We're professionals who work hard to develop special skills. We have feelings, too!"
If she had it to do over, she adds, there's no other way of life she would rather follow.
"It started for me when I was going to college in Michigan. Frankly, it was boring me. The only things I liked were animals and theater, and I didn't see much promise in either field. One day the circus came to campus. Sitting there on the bleachers, I said to myself, 'My God, this is perfect.' It was the first circus I'd ever been to, but I decided right there what I wanted to do."
White hooked up with an Ohio amusement park, where she began to learn wild animal taming. Her first visit to Storm Lake came 13 years and countless shows later. She has become known as one of the top two or three performers of her type in the vanishing world of traveling big top circuses.
When she came to Storm Lake with the rest of the show, she brought her stable of eight big cats - three lions, four tigers and one rare "Liger" (one of a half dozen living crosses with both the heavy coat of the lion and the tiger's stripes).
It's been a long road since the early days in tiny Clare, Mich., where White trained nothing more ferocious than the family's tabby cat.
"Respect is the key when you work with any animal," she explained. "Believe it or not, none of the cats you see with this circus are declawed, defanged or drugged.
"If anyone who works with wild animals tells you they've never been scared, they're either a fool or a liar. The key is not letting the animal know that you're scared. Lucky for me, I'm a terrific bluffer."
Some trainers have been killed. White has, on several occasions, been injured by her animals - each time, she stressed, it was her mistake, not viciousness on the cat's part.
"If you have a house cat or dog at home, the basics are the same. Common sense, repetition, a great deal of love and a little bit of discipline."
She promises circus-goers they will see jungle cats do feats they would never have imagined possible.
Over her many years in circuses, White has made nearly 5,000 stops, perhaps 10,000 performances. Unlike her street-corner confusion when we first spoke, not all the travels blur
together for her. "Some places stand out. I might remember it because there's a good place to pick up cat meat if I ever come back. Sometimes, you meet someone who makes an impression on you and, years later, you remember that town and person, even if you never make it back."
Contrary to what some might think, she found the circus an excellent place to raise a child.
"Being a parent is difficult today, no matter where you are. The circus atmosphere isn't adverse to the things I want for my son, just the contrary. The people are wonderful."
However, after the years of only moderate paychecks, injuries and horrendous travel schedules, she had no plans for her son to join the act. "I want him to know there are other options out there for him. If, when he gets old enough, he insists on working big cats with me, I'll tell him the bad and the good and not stand in his way.
"I can't say the circus is an easy life. No one who works in any circus would say that. But I'll be sticking with it as long as I'm able. If just happens to be the life that I love."
I'm not sure how a circus stacks up the minds of today's children with the internet, computer games, special effect TV and movies.
But I do know people like Patricia pour their hearts out under the big top. For us, it's a chance to be a kid again, if only for an afternoon. For her, it's a way of life, and another stop on an endless road.