Cover image for The circus at the edge of the earth : travels with the Great Wallenda Circus
The circus at the edge of the earth : travels with the Great Wallenda Circus
Wilkins, Charles (Charles Everett)
Publication Information:
Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, [1998]

Physical Description:
270 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Reading Level:
1460 Lexile.
Program Information:
Reading Counts RC High School 10 19 Quiz: 20241 Guided reading level: NR.
Corporate Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GV1821.G74 W55 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



For his latest adventure book, Wilkins travelled with the North American circus for 3,000 kilometers. He describes the seductive freedom and horrific jeopardy of circus life, some of the strange characters he met, and some of the small towns and settlements they visited. He includes some snapshots of his friends, human and otherwise. No index or bibliography. Canadian card order number: C98-931845-1. Annotation copyrighted by Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The earth edge in question is northwest Manitoba, and Barnumesque business as usual begins with bigtime fraud, as big-cat trainer and truck driver Wilson Barnes saves a 100-mile detour around a national park by claiming that hay, not an elephant, is in his trailer. Y' see, transporting exotic animals through Canada's federal preserves is illegal--and just one obstacle the plucky band headed by Ricky Wallenda overcomes. Wallenda--"scion of the most famous performing family in the history of the American circus" --no longer performs, due to injuries incurred in the family high-wire act. Wilkins explores the "Wallenda gestalt" with Ricky, but elephant trainer Bobby Gibbs steals the show. A "370-pound affront to everything that is conformist," Gibbs has a beautiful relationship with a blind pachyderm of a certain age that continues to perform daily. Gibbs becomes Wilkins' guide, introducing the performers and recounting circus lore as they traverse Canada in dismal weather. In 10 years, Gibbs says, there won't be any traveling circuses. On the evidence of this book, that will be a shame. --Mike Tribby

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a narrative that is by turns funny, informative and poignant, Wilkins chronicles a month on the road in his native Canada with the Great Wallenda Circus in the spring of 1997 and, in the process, offers remarkable insight into a subcultureÄthe diverse assortment of gymnasts, animal trainers, daredevils and wanderers who identify themselves as circus folkÄthat is slowly disappearing from public consciousness. Ricky Wallenda, the producer and organizer of the outfit, inherited his famous name from his grandfather Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the famous "Flying Wallendas" circus family. Wallenda, forced off the high wire and into show production by two harrowing accidents and haunted by the memory of family and personal tragedy, is an example of the dogged persistence that drives these performers to stay in the circus business despite the grind of constant travel and preparation, dwindling profits and omnipresent danger (what these circus folk have to say about tigers will make readers afraid of their Frosted Flakes). Wilkins's primary guide through both the lore and the practical reality of the circus is Bobby Gibbs, the 370-pound animal trainer and social provocateur who lovingly shepherds his 60-year-old, blind elephant, Judy, through the backroads and chilly arenas of Canada. Gibbs exhorts Wilkins to capture the experience truthfully: "Don't sugarcoat it!" Wilkins, with a love for the circus nurtured since childhood, balances his admiration for the performers and their craft with a probing exploration of their humanity. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Wilkins, author or coauthor of eight books (e.g., After the Applause McClelland & Stewart, 1990), traveled with the circus for a month from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Flin Flon, Manitoba. He introduces us to a cast of fascinating and usually eccentric characters who live with the daily threat of injury or death and who have all lost at least one close friend or family member. Less a travelog than a human interest story, this book takes us inside an ever-changingÄand rapidly vanishingÄworld. One theme is the current threat from animal rights activists who want to eliminate the all-important elephant, tiger, and lion shows. Wilkins provides us with a sensitive and objective view of today's dedicated and idiosyncratic circus artists. One can sense the fun he had with the troupe and the strong bonds he formed along the way. Recommended.ÄMelinda Stivers Leach, Precision Editorial Svcs., Wondervu, CO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The evening of May 13, 1997, was not the worst in Wilson Barnes's career as a tiger trainer, but it was within hailing distance of the worst. His joints ached, his eyes watered, and his inner throat resembled a paste of crushed raspberries. In the hours since the afternoon show, he had battled surges of intense chills, his particular response to a germ that, over the past few days, had reduced half the circus to moaning and fever and long disquieting sleeps.     For Wilson, the virus had rooted during a week of extraordinary demands on his energy. Six days earlier, his co-worker on the show, a Barnumesque elephant trainer named Bobby Gibbs, had blown the engine in his aging diesel Freightliner on the highway at Sioux Narrows, Ontario. The result was that Wilson, besides doing two performances a day and raising his three-year-old daughter, Connie, was hauling his tigers from one stop to the next, then doubling back to haul the elephant trailer over highways perilously heaved by the frosts of the Canadian winter. On the jump north from Brandon the previous day, he had been obliged to detour a hundred kilometres around Riding Mountain National Park to comply with laws forbidding the transport of exotic animals through Canada's federal preserves.     On the repeat run with the elephant, he had stopped at the park gate, where the same attendant who had forced him to detour earlier asked jauntily if he had another load of tigers on board. "Nothin this time but a dozen bales of hay!" hollered Bobby Gibbs from the passenger seat. And they had been waved on into the sanctified forest, hauling a nine-thousand-pound Asian elephant.     Had there been so much as a day of sunshine, of seasonable warmth, as the tour pressed north and west, Wilson's weariness would have been soothed. But for two weeks straight, the wind had come hard out of the Arctic, bringing daily snow and skies the colour of old asphalt during a month when, even on the Fiftieth Parallel, crocuses and daffodils should have been coming into bud. The spring to date had been the coldest of the century. But few northerners were of a mind to complain, knowing that, in the distance to the south, ten thousand of their countrymen in the Red River Valley had seen their farms and villages disappear under a flood deemed the worst in five hundred years. The circus's date in Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg, had been cancelled because the arena booked for the occasion had been commandeered to house soldiers brought in to protect what could still be protected.     On top of all this, in the frigid arena on the eastern boundary of Dauphin, Manitoba, the anticipated crowd had not materialized. A few dozen schoolchildren who had missed the afternoon show, or had returned with their parents, sat in a loose aggregation behind the players' benches. Below and in front, a double line of wheelchair occupants -- some barely above the threshold of sensibility -- had been rolled into place on a plywood riser along the arena's north boards. They huddled in blankets and parkas as the Grand Potentate of the Khartum Temple of Shriners, the esteemed Bob Bridgewater, introduced the local "nobles" and, with merciful brevity, touted the efforts of the Shrine in bringing the Great Wallenda Circus from Sarasota, Florida " All the way to Dauphin, Manitoba. And now ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls ," shouted the Potentate, " will you please join me in welcoming one of the great ringmasters of all time, the singing ringmaster ... Misterrr ... Billlll ... Borrrren! "     As the three-piece band blew a brisk rendition of "Oh, What a Feeling," and a motorized mirror-ball threw silver dollars across the overhead trusses, Wilson shucked his buckskin jacket, flung it into the penalty box, and stepped onto the arena floor. He had performed for seventy thousand fans in the Kingdome in Seattle, had played the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. But in one respect at least, his performance tonight in front of 120 people was no different from those he had given in the largest cities on the continent. On that account, as always, he paused in the darkness by the ring curb and uttered a brief, silent prayer. Two nights earlier, in Brandon, I had asked him what he prayed for when he entered the steel cage. Raised in Newfoundland but a sixteen-year resident of Dallas, his voice combines the nasal twang of the Rock with the taffied drawl of central Texas. "I pray," he said softly, "that I'll come out alive."     Wilson is not given to dramatics or hyperbole. He is simply aware of the realities of his chosen work.     Under cover of darkness and the diversion of the ringmaster's singing, he slipped through the door of the circular pen that is his office, latched it behind him, and stood in the shadows awaiting his introduction. Unapparent yet to the audience, he was costumed in a one-piece lime-coloured suit, adorned with curlicues of black sequins and cut to the navel, revealing his thickening torso and generous thatching of chest hair. He had a buggy whip in one hand, a "bait stick" in the other, and on his feet a pair of silvered dingo boots.     In the moments that remained, he slowed his breathing, distanced his surroundings, and focused his energy on the exceptional requirements at hand.     And then he was on, no longer the flu-ridden circus cowboy but " The one and only Wilson Barnes ," floodlit commando, as dauntless as Daniel, with a smile as glittering as his nerve.     As the opening strains of "The Jungle Rumba" rattled through the empty arena, Wilson turned on his heel to face his assistant, Rick Robinson, who from outside the ring pulled the lock pin on the slide-gate and yanked it back, allowing a four-hundred-pound Bengal named Kismit to glide into the spotlight. Like the other tigers, she had spent much of the day in the frigid arena, sending up a keening yowl, and was in no mood to be trifled with or pushed around. She feinted toward Wilson, showed him four inches of ivory, and, as he cracked his whip, leapt peevishly onto her seat. Unlike lions, which live in prides and hunt in numbers, tigers are solitary animals, territorial isolationists, that will fight one another, sometimes to death, if they are allowed into unsupervised proximity. For that reason, they are brought briskly into the ring through the chute formed by their aligned cages, and hustled onto their perches, which are located equidistant around the periphery of the circular pen: Kismit, Lokme, Robin, Pasha, Seanna -- all females except Pasha, all Bengals except the big Siberian, Seanna.     When all five tigers were securely on their seats, Wilson styled to the audience, accepted a scrap of applause, and, as the band pounded into an old Count Basie tune called "Jungle Voodoo," raised an aluminum hoop as high over his head as he could reach. He brought Robin off her seat, and, by cracking his whip within inches of her backside, directed her onto an ornate pedestal, from which she bounded through the hoop onto an identical pedestal eight feet away. He repeated the trick with a cotton-wrapped hoop that had been soaked in lighter fluid and set on fire.     Wilson normally worked eight tigers, but when he had attempted to get clearance to leave the United States on Apri1 29 he learned that he had inadvertently muddled the exacting paperwork required to bring an endangered species across an international border. When the error was detected by an astute federal agent in Minneapolis, three of the tigers -- Baby, Sheba, and India -- were refused exit from the country. With the circus opening the following day in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and no time for adjustments, Bobby Gibbs, who handles business for both the tigers and elephants, had no choice but to rent a twenty-six-foot U-Haul and send the tigers home to Seagoville, Texas. "I didn't tell the rental lady what we were gonna use the truck for," Bobby told me. "She kept saying, `You sure you don't want packing blankets or anything to protect your furniture?' I said, `No, no, we'll be okay. We're not hauling anything delicate.' Lucky I knew a cop in Minneapolis, a guy who used to work for me. I got him to drive the truck."     Wilson is something over six feet tall, with high dimpled cheeks and straight brown hair that touches his eyebrows in front, his collar behind. His nose travels half the length of his face and has the contour of a dolphin's back. He professes to have loved tigers since he was a boy back in Fortune, Newfoundland, where his family has fished cod for nearly seventy-five years. But despite his longstanding relationship with the cats, his love for them remains radically unrequited. Any of the twenty or more he has worked during his years as a tiger trainer would have torn out his throat had he betrayed even the slightest sign of vulnerability. In the cage, he moves constantly forward. He is bigger than they are, or so they are led to believe. But the illusion can be maintained only as long as he is standing, advancing, overshadowing, subduing not by force but by superior confidence and intelligence. "You never take a step back," he told me one afternoon on the lot, "and if they're challenging you, you sure as hell don't turn and take off. Once they have you on the run, they'll have their claws and teeth into you within seconds."     It is only in recent decades that tigers have appeared in the circus at all. For more than 150 years after the emergence of the modern circus during the late 1700s in England, they were considered too mean, too dangerous, too independent to be trusted in the ring. Until well into the twentieth century, only legendary cat trainers such as Mabel Stark and Clyde Beatty possessed the jam to take them on. And they paid for their insolence. Asked once by a journalist what it took to be a tiger trainer, Mabel Stark, in a melodramatic pique, threw open her robe, revealing a lower body all but covered in a dense embroidery of suture marks and scar tissue. "That's what it takes," she said.     "When Clyde Beatty died," Bobby Gibbs told me, "he was just one big mass of scars. He'd been beaten up so many times he couldn't even remember them all." By his own estimate, Bob has seen "every cat act in America" and some "unforgettable bloodlettings" in the ring. "A tiger attack is almost impossible to repel," he said one day as we watched Wilson work. "If his adrenaline's pumping and he's serious about getting you, you're not gonna stop him with a crowbar; he'll come through a gun blast to get you. A lion on his own can be stopped; he's a coward, just like in the storybook. Besides, you can see a lion's attack coming -- he'll start barking if he's getting ready to challenge you. A tiger just sits there glaring -- then he's in the air."     Wilson himself has been "hit," as they say in the circus -- "torn up," to use his own picturesque phrase. Three years ago in Nebraska, working outdoors, he momentarily lost his footing on fine gravel during what he calls the "go-home" trick, a charade in which he attempts to get the apparently reluctant Kismit to leave the ring after the others have departed at the end of the act. "I slid a few inches toward her," he told me, "and in the moment I was off balance, I saw her paw coming for my face with the claws bared." He managed to get his arm up for protection but, in the process, received deep lacerations to the muscles and tendons in his forearm. "A tiger's swipe is so powerful," he said, "that if it catches you low on the arm, it can destroy connected muscle and skin away up on the biceps. Since the act was over, I styled, wrapped my arm up and headed for the hospital. She'd hit an artery, so the blood was everywhere."     On another occasion, a tiger about to jump through the fire hoop stopped on the pedestal before leaping. "You don't want them parked up there, because they can come down on you," Wilson said. "But when I tried to coax her along, she bit me on the hand, drove an eye tooth right through the palm and out the other side. Chomp -- and she let me go. But with the shock of it, I didn't feel a thing -- I finished the act, and it wasn't for a couple of hours that it really started to hurt."     Wilson's worst accident came in 1992 during what he calls the "lay down," a trick in which he gets eight tigers to stretch out side by side on the floor, so that their combined mass resembles a luxurious log raft or plush corduroy road. With the tigers down during a performance in Lawrence, Kansas, he turned to receive the audience's applause, taking his eyes off the cats just long enough for an aging male -- "a real nice tiger" -- to rise, step forward, and put its teeth through the calf of his leg. "He hung on like it was the last meal he was ever gonna get," Wilson said in a voice verging on nostalgia. "I knew if I went down, I was finished -- he'd have been all over me. So I dropped my whip, concentrated my strength, and hit him in the face with my fist -- and I'll tell ya, it was fully loaded. I guess it surprised him, because he let go and just looked at me, as if he were gonna cry, and I was able to get the bunch of them back on their seats."     On that occasion, too, Wilson finished the act in shock, leaving the ring at about the same time as the collected blood began to overflow the top of his boot.     "I'm lucky," Wilson says. "I've never been seriously taken apart."     And he is undisturbed by the fact that, if he were, there is no contingency plan for his rescue -- nobody stationed near the cage with a gun, a can of mace, or a [CO.sub.2] fire extinguisher, the deterrent of choice for repelling an attacking tiger (the cat cannot stand the smothering cold around its nostrils and eyes). At one time, years ago, guards with rifles were stationed outside the ring during the more sensational cat acts. Clyde Beatty carried a pistol inside the ring. But in each case the weapons were for effect only; Beatty's pistol fired blanks, and the rifles were not loaded. "You couldn't shoot a gun in a crowded arena," scoffs Bobby Gibbs. "We're not even allowed to carry tranquillizer guns. Then again, what good would they do? They take time to work. A tiger can kill you in a fraction of a second."     Wilson says, "I guess I just figure that if I was ever being dragged around, there are people who'd come into the ring to save my life."     Perhaps forfeiting their own in the process.     One night as I stood with the prop boss, David Connors, watching Wilson's act, I asked him what would happen if one of the tigers turned on Wilson in the cage. "I don't even like to think about it," he said. "I saw Oakie Carr get taken apart by a big old lion in the sixties, when I was with Carson and Barnes -- carved 'im up so bad I wouldn't'a dreamed they'd put him back together. But people I never thought had the guts went into that cage to save his life -- little Mexican jugglers, acrobats, people who didn't owe him a thing."     It is hardly surprising that, among circus acts, tiger training stands foremost, if not alone, in its imperviousness to comedy. "In fifty years," says Bobby Gibbs, "I've seen clowning in just about everything you can do in a circus: high wire, flying acts, cycling, trampoline, teeter board, elephants, horses, bears, lions, alligators. Even something as dangerous as the human cannonball has a funny side. But no matter how they dress it up, there is no such thing as a comedy tiger act."     Even in their cages, tigers pose a formidable menace to anyone ignorant of, or careless about, their lethal temperaments and capabilities. Depending on the design of a cage, a tiger will sometimes be able to extend a forepaw as much as ten or twelve inches through an open feeding slot at floor level. "Because a tiger hunts alone," Bobby Gibbs told me, "every weapon it's got has to be deadly efficient." Each of its retractable claws, for example, is independently articulated, so that, having grabbed its prey, it can drag it in, as if on a conveyor belt, without having to release its grip. "A lion can't do that, because its claws aren't fully retractable and because they all work together. If it grabs you through the cage bars and wants to pull you in, it has to release its grip every time it moves farther along your arm or leg, so you have a chance to escape. If a tiger gets even a thread of your clothing, it can have your arm or leg through the slot in an instant." As he spoke, Bobby grabbed my arm and, with great force, walked the fingers of his right hand from my elbow to my shoulder. "That's how they do it," he said. "You watch out around them tiger cages. One year in Oklahoma I saw a cat hook a seventy-pound dog by the lip and shred him through a four-inch slot in its cage. It'll do the same to you." * * * As if Wilson's job that night in Dauphin was not difficult enough, two of the female cats, Robin and Seanna, had "come in" that morning and were exhibiting the testiness typical of tigers in heat. The cats' twenty-eight-day fertility cycle corresponds exactly to that of human beings. Like the cycles of women who live together, those of the cats will tend, over time, to align. "When one comes in, they all do," said Wilson. "During the four or five days they're in heat, all they wanta do is make babies. With a male in the ring, they'll go right at it if you give them the chance. Even when they're in their cages, I can always tell if they're in heat, because instead of growling they'll just purr at me. In the ring, of course, they're more interested in the other cats -- the females don't like one another at all. And their periods make them snarlier than ever."     In the ongoing imminence of chaos -- or of an outbreak of the natural "order" of things -- Wilson does his best never to take his eyes off any single cat for more than a few seconds. "I can't watch all of them all the time," he said, "but I have Rick's eyes working for me, too. If I'm not looking, and, say, Seanna starts coming off her seat, Rick'll yell ` Seanna ' and I'll turn to her and put her back up before she gets into trouble." Suddenly Wilson was laughing. "What she's thinking when she comes down is, Isn't this nice; he ain't lookin at me -- I'll just step over there and eat him ."     Wilson is asked regularly whether his cats have had their claws or teeth removed, or whether they are drugged. "First off," he says, "I'd never destroy a tiger by removing its claws or teeth. How's it going to eat or defend itself? And if you drugged them, you'd never get them to do anything. They sleep sixteen hours a day as it is. The only way to keep 'em in their place is to get their respect -- there's no substitute for it, no gimmicks."     "What about the whip?" I asked.     "I never touch them with it. It's just to get their attention. If I whipped them, they'd have had me for lunch years ago."     Wilson's concern for the integrity of his animals extends to their (eminently saleable) carcasses. "I had a tiger die on me last year in St. Paul, Alberta," he told me, "and because tigers are an endangered species, we had to have a couple'a vets certify that it had died. They saw it, and they wanted to skin it out -- stuff it and so on. But I wasn't havin any part of that. If we'd been at home we woulda buried it -- that's what we do. But we couldn't really do that on the road, and, even if we could have, I didn't know but what somebody might dig it up for the bones or something. So, I phoned up the local funeral home, and told 'em I had a tiger that I wanted to have cremated. The guy didn't say anything for a few seconds; then he said, `We don't usually do tigers here, sir. We just do humans.'     "I said, `What's the difference, you're just burning it up? We don't want a funeral or nuthin.' Finally, they agreed to do it."     "Problem was," said Bobby Gibbs, "that before we got it over there, the vet had already pulled out some of the claws and teeth; he told us he had to do an autopsy. I said, `You don't hafta yank the eye teeth to do an autopsy.' He was gonna keep them. So we phoned the Department of Agriculture, and they put a stop to that. They were gonna prosecute the guy." * * * Of all the factors affecting Wilson as he put the tigers through their routines that night in Dauphin, the most insidious, the least quantifiable, was an occurrence that, two days earlier, had sent a tremor through the entire North American circus community. The news had reached our own miscellaneous troupe on Saturday afternoon in the windy parking lot of the Keystone Centre in Brandon, where the animal trucks and the mobile homes of the performers were parked in a temporary cluster of the sort that passes for a neighbourhood among circus people on the road. The initial word was that Brian Franzen, son of Wayne Franzen, owner of the respected Franzen Brothers Circus, had been killed working tigers somewhere in North Carolina. Pat Delaney, a Chicago Irishman who ran the concessions for the Great Wallenda Circus, had caught the end of a television report on the incident as he was leaving his hotel room, and had stopped by the animal trailers with the news on his way into the Keystone Centre an hour before the evening performance.     Among circus people, all of whose fates are glimpsed in the fates of all other circus people, the response was a predictable mixture of dismay and calculated refusal to deal too deeply with the implications of the news.     "You can train 'em, but you can't tame 'em," said David Connors, whose own life had taken a fateful turn when his wife, Sissy, had been thrown from her aerial apparatus during a performance in Marquette, Michigan, in 1991, and had landed dead on the floor just metres from where David was standing.     Within minutes, Bobby Gibbs had passed the news of Franzen's death to Rick Robinson, urging him not to tell Wilson, at least until after his performance in a little over an hour. "You never know how he's gonna take something like that," he said. "Same thing could happen to him any time he goes in the ring. You remind a guy of that too often and he can get spooked."     The talk among veterans on the lot was that the younger Franzen had been inexperienced. "I doubt it woulda happened to his dad," shrugged Pat Delaney.     But the tone changed later that night when an Associated Press report divulged that it was not Franzen's son who had been killed but the veteran himself, a man who had spent twenty-three of his fifty years training tigers. He had been killed not in North Carolina but in Broad Top City, Pennsylvania.     Franzen's story was well known. He had quit his job as a high-school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1973, after watching a circus program on television, and had founded a one-ring tent circus with his brother. "He had a real nice little show," said Bobby Gibbs. "Everybody knew him."     The AP report suggested that the tiger that killed him, a six-year-old, four-hundred-pound Bengal named Lucca, had been confused by a bright new costume Franzen was wearing, and had perhaps not recognized him. But given that a tiger can detect the smell of its trainer a hundred feet away in an arena crowded with sixteen thousand people, it seemed unlikely that Lucca would have failed to recognize Franzen at a distance of six feet in familiar surroundings.     When the show ended that night, and the trucks were being loaded for the jump to Dauphin, I asked Wilson what he thought about the fate of his fellow trainer, and whether it had bothered him to go into the cage with the news so fresh in his mind (it turned out he had been told of Franzen's death minutes before he went on). He was reluctant to disparage a colleague, especially under the circumstances, but volunteered that, where Franzen was concerned, mistakes could have been made. Wilson took a pull on a freshly lit cigarette, exhaled a cubic metre of smoke, and said, "He may have been tired -- may not have had his concentration. One thing I know is, you can't turn your back on 'em for long." In front of us on the arena floor, the prop hands, a trio of muscular Texans, laughed and kibitzed as they loaded ring curbs and floodlights into a white ten-ton truck bearing the insignia of the Great Wallenda Circus.     "Did it bother you tonight?" I asked again.     "Not really," he shrugged. "I have to know before I go in there that I'm not gonna make mistakes, no matter what's going on. Don't get me wrong, I'm not overconfident. I know how dangerous it is. In fact, if I'm not scared when I go in there, I'm not gonna be alert, and then I am gonna make mistakes."     "Every animal guy who ever lived will tell you exactly the same thing," said Bobby Gibbs when we spoke the following morning. "When somebody gets mauled, it's because he screwed up. The high-wire guys say it, too -- somebody goes down, he's not concentrating. If Wilson believed that no matter how well he performed there was gonna come a day when, outta the blue, some tiger was gonna take his head off, sooner or later it'd get to him, and he wouldn't go back in. Nobody who hopes to survive is gonna play Russian roulette for very long." * * * By the time we got to Dauphin, I had seen Wilson perform twenty-two times in thirteen days. But far from growing inured to his efforts, I had grown intrigued to the point that, that night, in the drafty, near-vacant arena, I abandoned my usual seat behind the boards, moved out onto the floor, and crouched by the low metal table on which, two acts later, Jill Gonçalves would do her sword-balancing routine. Wilson urged the cats onto the cage furniture in a reluctant version of their three-level pyramid. As he returned them to their seats I edged forward in the darkness so that I was now within a step of the ring curb, just two or three metres from where Seanna, the big Siberian, sat awaiting her next cue. Several times over the past few days I had wondered where, amidst the numerous forms of courage, you might place that of a guy who of his own volition puts his life on the line daily in the interest of making a living. What arcane equation might connect such activity to the courage required to face disease or torture or political oppression -- or, more obscurely, to hold the courage of one's convictions?     "Maybe it's not courage at all," I was told by a psychologist friend. "Maybe it's just exaggerated risk-taking. Then again," he shrugged, "maybe courage isn't courage."     Whatever it is, there is something daunting, even agonizing, but also something deeply poignant, about the notion of a man willing to risk his life so that others will be entertained. "I don't know what it is inside that allows me to do it, when the next guy won't go near it," Wilson says. "But I do know it can run out. I've heard of guys who've done ten thousand performances getting up one morning, looking at the cats, and knowing they're not going back in the ring."     Wilson comes from what he calls a very close family. His parents, however, have never seen him perform. "I've sent them a video," he says, "and they don't like it. They think I should get out of this line of work." Nor have his three brothers seen him in the cage, although his younger sister spent four days with him while he was performing in New Brunswick during the spring of 1996. "She saw me work once," he says, "and after that she couldn't even be in the building when I was with the cats. She had to leave."     Back in Dauphin, the band chorded smoothly out of "Arabia Chase" into a precipitous version of "Gallop Go." Rick Robinson, who had been sidling in the shadows, stepped to the cage and tugged back the plywood door at the cat entrance, signalling to the tigers that another night in show business had come to an end. Their entire routine had taken nine minutes. Wilson pointed his bait stick and twirled his whip, snapping the cats from the ring. Experienced show tigers respond to the bait stick not because it carries bait but because it did when they were youngsters learning their routines. "You put a little piece of meat on the end," Wilson told me, "and they go where it goes."     Within seconds, only Kismit, an eleven-year-old female, was still in the ring, sitting obstinately on her seat on the opposite side of the cage to the cat exit. Wilson marched to within a metre of her -- just out of claw range -- and in gestures broad enough to be read in the next town urged her to vamoose. She threw a halfhearted roundhouse at him, then, on cue, rose on her haunches, growled convincingly, and made a series of wild swipes at the tip of the bait stick, which Wilson had extended to a point a foot or so above her brow.     Up came the spotlight on Bill Boren, who was approaching the ring in his patent leather shoes and blue sequined tux. Bill is an enamel-voiced cracker who as a teenager sang for four consecutive weeks on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in New York City and was present in the radio studio in his home town of Tupelo, Mississippi, when Elvis Presley gave his earliest public performances.     "What seems to be the problem?" Bill asked, as the band relaxed into a low-level vamp.     "I can't get her to go home," shouted Wilson without the benefit of a mike.     "Maybe if you said please it'd help," Bill suggested, to which Wilson made him a mock offer of the whip and bait stick.     "No, no, that's your job," demurred the ringmaster, cueing Wilson to turn to the cat, lower himself to one knee, and attempt unsuccessfully to " pleeease " her into cooperating.     "How about pretty please?"     " Pretty please," said Wilson, terminating the cloying exercise with a gesture of the bait stick that sent Kismit loping across the ring to the exit chute.     By the halfway point of the next act -- an aerial ballet choreographed to the ringmaster's rendition of "Wind Beneath My Wings" -- the tiger cage had been dismantled, the tigers were aboard the well-louvred semi trailer that is their road home, and Wilson was standing in his jeans and T-shirt in the tiny apartment that he has furnished for himself in the front end of the trailer. His lime-green costume was pooled on the chesterfield, and the leg of his black "dress" costume dangled from an overhead shelf where he had tossed it following the performance that afternoon. Out of habit, not thirst, he took a beer from a case on the floor, opened the door a crack, and threw the bottle cap into the parking lot. Outside, it had begun to snow.     He went back into the arena, located Connie, and bought her a Pepsi and a bag of chips to make up for the supper she had missed. Then he bought her a Caramilk bar, her fourth of the day. He sat in the dressing room, inhaling the residue of last winter's hockey, and smoked a cigarette. If there was one thing he did not feel like doing that night it was driving. But if he was to be back in the morning to haul the elephant, he had little choice.     When the show was over he put Connie to bed in the trailer. For a few minutes, he lay in his own bed in a plywood loft above the tigers, at one point hollering at them to keep the noise down.     When it was clear sleep wouldn't come, he got up, started the truck, and sat in the cab with Rick Robinson, each of them sipping a Labatt's Blue. Their love of beer, Rick told me one day, was what had brought them together a couple of years earlier when Rick was working props with another show. "And of course we both love the tigers," he said. "I consider those cats a part of my family."     Wilson took a Kleenex from a box on the cab floor, evacuated his sinuses, and stuffed the tissue into a potato chip bag that, for the past couple of days, he had been using for that purpose. When the heat from the blowers was warm enough to soothe his joints, he released the brakes, slipped the gearbox into low, and ever so gently engaged the clutch. Copyright © 1998 Charles Wilkins. All rights reserved.