Fun with big cats is an average work day


"WELL, IT'S been a nice life" is basically what I'm thinking the other day as I scribble in a notebook three feet away from a 600-pound Bengal tiger, which is what you do if you want to talk to Ted McRae.

Fortunately, the big cat is caged, although this does not seem to do much for my blood pressure as we stand near Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick, where the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus has set up tent for two days.

I have come to talk to McRae, a Baltimore native, because it's hard to believe there are still people who make their living stepping into a large steel cage in a circus ring with three lions and three tigers.

McRae says that as far as he knows, he's the only African-American circus big-cat trainer in the world. And his 15-minute act, which he performs twice a night and three times on Saturdays, is unique, too. It's part touchy-feely love fest - he "spars" with the lions and tigers, gives them high-fives, nuzzles them, sits on them playfully - and part traditional "lion-tamer" stuff, where he directs the cats through flaming hoops and has them balance on their hind legs atop spinning mirrored balls.

But the job is not without its hazards.

What's the worst thing that happens if you have a bad day at the office?

The toner's low on the copier?

The boss barks at you?

You screw up an account and cost the company a few grand?

If Ted McRae has a bad day at the office, a tiger drags him around the ring like a chew-toy.

Or - if it's a very bad day - the tiger eats him for dinner.

"Oh, yeah, they'll eat you," says Jack Robinson, McRae's assistant. "You're red meat. And they eat red meat."(This cheerful message, by the way, is emphasized a few times during our visit. Before McRae takes center ring for the 4:30 show, his first performance of the evening, marketing director Dan Bennett tells Sun photographer Ken Lam: "Don't get too close because the cats will spray you. That's to mark you. They're saying: 'If I get out of here, he's mine.' ")

A compact, muscular man of 45 with a hoop in one ear and a diamond stud in the other, McRae prepped for this job pretty much how you'd expect.

That's right: He was a forklift operator at a paint warehouse.

But one day back in 1994, as McRae tells it, his cousin, music promoter Cedric Walker, called. Walker told McRae he was starting the first African-American circus, to be called Universoul.

Apparently, Walker is not one for a lot of chit-chat, either. Because in the next breath, he asked McRae: "How'd you like to train the big cats for me?"

At this point in the conversation, cousin or no cousin, my reaction would have been: "Uh, I have a call on the other line."

But Ted McRae said: "Sure. Love to." Or something to that effect, although he added he'd have to make sure it was OK with his wife, Renee.(Oh, I would have killed to hear that conversation. "Honey, I'm running off to the circus to train lions, see you in a few weeks." That's not exactly like asking to go out with the boys for a few beers.)

"I'd always been into animals. Never been afraid of them," is how McRae explains this mid-career switch, noting that, in addition to having every known species of pet as a kid, he also had a 13 1/2 -foot, 150-pound Burmese python.

Three weeks after Walker's phone call, McRae found himself at Rosaire's Big Cat Encounter in Sarasota, Fla., learning how to interact with the animals, trying to master the intricate choreography between man and wild beast so essential in this line of work.

"If you make a mistake, you're dead," he says. And on his first solo training session with the big cats, Ted McRae made a mistake.

After nuzzling a 450-pound female tiger named Xena - her head was in the crook of his arm - McRae stood awkwardly.

"I put my shoulder in her mouth - it was my fault," he says. "And she bit down."

There was a "collective inhale" from the trainers outside the cage. McRae didn't die, but Xena's teeth gouged a nice chunk of skin from his shoulder.

At this point, if I were him, I'd be thinking: Y'know, a guy could go a long way as a forklift operator.

But after the trainers determined the wound didn't need stitches, McRae went right back into the cage to work the routine with Xena again.

After that, McRae recalls with a smile: "That cat might as well have spoken English. She might as well have said: 'Young man, I respect your nerve.' "

Since then, Ted and Renee McRae and their three kids - 15-year-old Adrian, 11-year-old Jordan and 9-year-old Dorian - have made the circus their life. Ted was with Universoul for four years, and then joined two smaller circuses before hooking on with the Cole Bros. circus this year.

If you like to wake up every morning and see the same thing when you look out the window, the circus life isn't for you; this year, the McRaes will be on the road from South Florida to Maine as the circus plays 110 dates up to November.

Remember earlier, when we talked about a bad day at the office?

During the 4:30 show, with a crowd of about 1,500 under the big tent, Ted McRae has a bad day at the office.

Fortunately, he doesn't get mauled. But things don't go smoothly at all.

In the middle of the act, on the "lay-down" routine in which all six cats are to crouch side-by-side, the male Bengal tiger, Nadu, balks at laying down next to his sister, Xena, who had snarled at him earlier. (Yes, the same Xena that bit Ted way back when.)

McRae handles it all. But the crowd can sense the tigers seem skittish and distracted. A woman behind me whispers: "Uh-oh. I hope he's all right." McRae tries the lay-down again, but again Nadu refuses to crouch, so the routine is completed with only five of the cats.

"From the great City of Baltimore, the charismatic Ted McRae!" intones ringmaster Jimmy Jones after Xena's exciting mirrored-ball spin finale. McRae waves, bows and makes his exit to a nice round of applause.

In front of his trailer after the show, McRae is philosophical about the botched lay-down.

"You see how cats are people, too," he laughed. "[Xena's] evil, so [Nadu] didn't want anything to do with her. In lion-trainer speak, I should have made him come back. 'Cause if you let him get away with it once, he'll do it again.

"But sometimes people show up at work and they're not in a good mood. Xena was in a terrible mood. This time I wasn't gonna push it."

Maybe this is a better way to say it: Anytime Ted McRae leaves the cage without becoming a big cat's filet mignon, that's a good day at the office.

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