Ringling Bros.’ Alexander Lacey on Training Big Cats
Most people spend their pre-teen years either learning algebra or playing a secret pop superstar on TV. But for British-born Alexander Lacey, age 12 was when he first stepped inside a lion’s pen. Granted, Alexander had been around wild animals since he was four—his parents owned two zoos, and the Lacey family has raised 11 generations of lions and 9 generations of tigers. Big cats were in his blood.
Alexander’s first solo circus performance was at age 17. From there, his career whisked him all over Europe and earned him numerous awards and accolades, including “Best of the Best” at the Circus Festival in Monte Carlo, the Silver Clown award in Monaco, and the Chapiteau de Crystal Award in France. Today, Lacey and his coterie of 14 big cats wow audiences for Ringling Bros., appearing in touring productions such as LEGENDS.
It’s tireless work. And it's not a 9-to-5 job. “You need to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Lacey says. “You need to be dedicated to the animals and realize your life revolves around them.” We talked to Alexander about what else it takes to be a big-cat presenter.
Jack Hanna once said, "You can train a wild animal, but you can never tame a wild animal." Do you agree?
"Yes, I agree with the quote. Training an animal is taking a natural movement and having the animal do said movement on cue or command. Taming suggests that the animal can be domesticated, and they are wild animals. They cannot be domesticated."
How early do you start training your big cats? What does that training entail?
"All training is based on natural behaviors and play, which begins on day one, so to speak, or about 10 days old, when they open their eyes. You watch the cats' natural behaviors and how they play to see what their strengths are, then you incorporate those behaviors into your act."
Is there a difference between training lions and training tigers?
“Each individual animal will be a little bit different to train because of their individual personalities. For example, the lions Goldy, Princess, and Marley love to play in the water. Goldy is also mischievous, while Marley is more aggressive.”
What’s something most people don’t know about working with big cats?
"Cats communicate with each other via their body language. Tigers have white markings on the back of their ears and lions have black markings on theirs; they talk to each other by holding their ears in different positions. They also communicate by holding their tails in different positions and other general body movements."
What's a day in your life like?
“My typical day starts at 6:30 a.m., when I water and prepare the cats for act practice. Once practice is over, it’s time to eat. Each cat consumes between 8 and 16 pounds of meat daily. Right before bedtime, each cat gets a serving of warm milk and liver oil, which keeps their coats healthy and shiny. Lions and tigers are very much creatures of habit. They are most content and eager to perform when they follow a routine.
“The rest of the day varies depending on the show schedule; the cats will spend the rest of the time relaxing in their outdoor areas until it is time to get ready for the show. For this I make sure that all the cats are clean. The biggest part is brushing [male lion] Masai’s mane. He loves it.”
How can you tell if a cat really doesn’t want to perform that night? What do you do then?
“I would be able to tell if a cat does not want to perform from their body language—how they hold themselves and how they act with the other cats. I work with 14 lions and tigers, so if I really think one really doesn’t want to work, I’d just leave them out of that particular performance.”
What’s your favorite part of your job?
“I’m amazed every day at how intelligent the cats are and intrigued by their unique and individual personalities. I love to see the amazement in children’s eyes as they watch the cats demonstrate their abilities and see the incredible bond I have developed with them. I consider myself lucky to be able to live and work with these beautiful animals on a daily basis.”
Any advice for future big-cat presenters?
"If anyone is interested or aspiring toward this line of work, they not only need to make sure they love animals, but make sure [they] get a good education first. Once you have a good foundation, you can go on and do anything."