TFK chats with animal trainer Alexander Lacey of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
At age 2, he was playing with lion cubs. At 12, he fearfully stepped into a lion cage for the first time. By 17, he was performing his very first circus show with the big cats. Now 36, British-born Alexander Lacey makes his debut in the U.S. with his own lions and tigers in the show, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Presents Dragons.
For the Laceys, life in the circus is a family affair. The clan has raised and trained more than 11 generations of lions and nine generations of tigers. Lacey’s father was the director of a zoo and a circus, and his parents presented a lion and tiger act. Today, Lacey’s siblings work in a German circus, and Lacey’s wife and 8-year-old daughter travel with him and help with the animals.
Lacey describes his childhood as “brilliant.” He had friends from all over the world and said there was always a new playground to play in and different types of foods to eat. Lacey says he considered becoming a veterinarian or an architect, “but in the end, the pull of the circus was too strong.”
Caring for Big Cats
Because Lacey grew up with cats and raised the ones he works with, he understands their unique personalities. He creates routines that showcase each animal’s strengths. Athletic animals jump and run, while lazy and affectionate ones won’t do as much. “It’s very important that they only do what they feel most comfortable with in the ring,” Lacey explains. “It’s crazy to think that you have to force animals to perform because then it becomes dangerous. The animals don’t enjoy it, and I wouldn’t enjoy it either.”
The Big Cat act lasts only 12 to 15 minutes, up to three times a day, and is a minimal part of Lacey’s schedule. Lacey wakes at 6:30 a.m. and makes sure the cats drink water. He practices with the cats individually and in groups, feeds them 16 pounds of meat each, then cleans cages and freshens straw bedding and water.
Cats live and travel in their “bedrooms,” which keeps them stress-free. Their cages are equipped with tubs of water and with straw, balls and bamboo branches. The circus cats work only as long as they enjoy working. “The key to training them is finding out what they are good at and what they like to do,” says Lacey, “and lots of meat and lots of praise and repetition.”