Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animal trainer gets up close and personal with the big cats

With all the amazing acrobats, cartoonish clowns and majestic beasts at which to marvel, few fans watching a circus are likely to pay much attention to the animal trainer, who can seem like an almost anonymous afterthought amid all the controlled chaos.

But what does it take to stand face-to-face with 500-pound lions and tigers? What kind of person can walk into a cage full of big cats that could easily tear a man apart in seconds?

Alexander Lacey — a 38-year-old trainer from Nottingham, England, who will present the lions and tigers at the “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey: Legends” show from Friday through Jan. 19 at downtown Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena — might seem fearless and in complete control of these regal animals. But it wasn’t always that way. Far from it, in fact.

“I’m not gonna tell you I was big and brave — actually, it was very, very scary,” said Lacey, about the first time he stepped into the cage as a young teen with fully grown lions. “It was with my father — he had an act and worked with six male lions. And what I always remember with these cats is that they always looked huge from the outside, you know, but you don’t really realize how big they are until you’re face-to-face. And to tell you the truth, I was very, very scared. It made me think twice about whether I wanted to do it.”

Fear wasn’t the only obstacle, however, for Lacey to get where he is today. He also had to prove his relentless dedication and passion for the job to his parents, who owned two zoos in England before they began to train the animals, eventually leading them to join circus life. It was a true labor of love for young Lacey, but an ultimately rewarding one.

“I wasn’t allowed to actually go into the cage with the cats, or even begin the very basic training until I’d done at least five years cleaning up and caring for the animals,” Lacey said. “My parents right from the beginning told me that unless you’re gonna hang around for the next five years, and then for the rest of your life look after the big cats 24 hours a day, seven days a week, then it’s not a job for you. You have to love it — it’s a way of life.”

So there are definitely no regrets for Lacey, who loves every aspect of The Greatest Show On Earth, even though the circus isn’t in the blood quite as much as many families can boast, as he’s only a second-generation performer under the big top. In addition to the mythical and mysterious creatures exclusive to “Legends” such as the Unicorn, Pegasus and Woolly the Mammoth, Lacey particularly enjoys the Thundering Cossack Warriors — “about 16 girls and guys who gallop around at breakneck speed on these beautiful horses, doing tricks” on and off the horses.

He also raves about the 16-foot-diameter Grove of Steel, with a world-record eight motorcycles buzzing around inside, and the 28-member China National Acrobatic Troupe (“one of the guys somersaults from the ground as high as a basketball hoop, 10 feet in the air”).

“And also it’s a traditional show for the whole family,” Lacey adds. “Handsome guys for the moms and good-looking girls for the dads [laughs].”

Lacey’s part of the show isn’t restricted to presenting only lions and tigers. He’ll trot out a leopard named Mowgli, the first time the gorgeously spotted big cat has appeared in a Ringling event in 15 years, he says.

“He’s always a huge hit with the audience,” says Lacey. “We parade around the arena on a float, so there’s actually no space between the public and the leopard. He’s attached to me, so the public is quite safe, but we don’t have any barrier. So you can see him in all his beauty.”

As dangerous as big-cat training can certainly be, Lacey says the only injuries he’s experienced are little scratches, mostly from hand-rearing young tiger cubs, whose claws are needle-sharp. And it’s not just luck that has kept him safe.

“I haven’t had any serious accidents or injuries, because I spend so much time with my animals,” he says. “I know if they’re in a good mood, a bad mood, if they’re hungry, if they’re thirsty. Just like you and me, they have their off-days and don’t want to go to work. I can tell if they’re in the right frame of mind to work, so the secret is to avoid the bad situations. As long as you can do that, there’s no reason to be afraid or worried about attacks, because you’re never forcing the animals to do something they don’t want to do, or expecting them to do something on a day that they don’t want to do it.”

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