Allen Bloom, a Ringling Bros, vice-president, says, "The thing is that Gunther is so good and establishes such a rapport with the animals that they become docile, and nobody believes they're real. Audiences love the threat of violence and blood, but if Beatty was still around wearing his pith helmet and firing those blanks, the humane society would lock him up. Gunther has a love affair with those cats out there and nobody appreciates it."
Dwayne Cunningham, a black clown who rides one of the elephants in the show, concurs. "We have heard all the crap about the animals," he said, "and I've often wondered what would happen if I got in that cage with those cats. But I'm not about to find out. What the man does is provide art, beauty, a personal relationship. Sure, the tigers aren't wild anymore. They're tame. Seventeen huge, roaring mothers tame. But tame only for him. Let the critics jump in that cage and see how tame they are. Those cats be on somebody's case fast."
Gebel-Williams speaks with eloquence about animal happiness. "Most animals are born in some sort of cage," he says, "whether in bushes or behind trees or in zoos or something. Their dream is not to be in jungle and live free. If tigers go out of tent and get loose, they want back in cages right away. They are lost. Absolute. Part of all animals' life should be working and training. Zoo animals have nice life but they have nothing to do but lay down and stare at peoples. And peoples stare back. Jungle animals have nothing to advance themselves. My animals have more excitement, more things to do.
"Training is beautiful thing, I think," he goes on. "When animal's brainpower enhanced, life becomes more natural, easier, more pleasant. To get inside the head of animal and communicate, that is wonderful. That is what I live for. Absolute.
"I don't mistreat my animals. I don't fake anything. Everybody have claws and teeth. Very easy to make them mad, but a mad animal doesn't want to train in cage. If I hit them, hurting them, I lose relationship. All of our hits are light, they only hurt the animal's pride. The ASPCA has a right to look at circus and inspect us. I welcome this. If I am doing something wrong, tell me, I change it. If any other peoples handling animals bad, take it away from them. Boom. Absolute. But I don't think I do anything wrong. I give animal feeling for joy and fun."
Among the many routines Gebel-Williams performs and supervises, the mixed cats—an act that took two years to perfect, and has been described by the ancient clown, Lou Jacobs, as "an act like an Italian dinner I never saw before"—is the most complex. It consists of leopards, pumas and panthers climbing up and over one another while balancing on parallel ropes. There is also a lot of jumping through flames and rolypoly rough-housing in the ring while Gebel-Williams shouts orders in a forceful mixture of German and English before emerging with one leopard draped over his shoulders. Gunther then swats Papa Ben Said on the head with the leopard's tail.
"I keep watching Gunther's back," says Schroer, who stands just outside the cage. "Everywhere he doesn't look, I look. He looks right, I look left. If a big cat bites his neck, it's over."
On the most basic level, animal training is endless, careful, patient repetition. "You can rush a painting maybe," says Schroer, "but animal training can't be speeded up." Or taken for granted. When a chimp screws up a group act, for example, his trainer must quickly get the offender back in sequence, or the other chimps, angered by their compatriot's mistake, will punch his lights out.
"Each animal needs to know his place, his name, my voice, what I mean," GG-W says. "We do a trick over and over even if it takes years."
Such a trick is the magnificent teeter-board number in which an elephant rumbles up, steps on one end of the board and launches Gebel-Williams from the other end into a backward somersault and up onto another elephant's back. "That move right there takes Gunther out of the realm of trainers and into the acrobats, equilibrists," says Herriott.