Felines add exotic flare to fair animal showing
Tigers made their debut at the Webster County Fair this week, bringing Bengals Kyla, Aslan and Copa front and center where they did tricks for meat on a stick.
For most locals, it’s an entertaining spectacle. But for Felicia Frisco, their trainer, it’s a family heritage.
Based in Peoria, Illinois, the Frisco family has been raising tigers and elephants for nine generations. Both of Frisco’s parents were born into the circus. Her mother’s family was cat trainers, and her father’s family elephant trainers.
Frisco, 25, has been working with them since age 5, and doing shows since age 15.
Tiger Encounter, the show new to the fair this year, tours mostly Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida.
Their six tigers perform for about 14 non-consecutive weeks each year. Fair season is their busiest, with most fairs having three to four shows per day for three to four days.
In their down time, the tigers roam acreage in either Illinois or Florida, depending on the season.
“I’ve been with all of them since birth,” Frisco said.
For the first year of their life, she is with the tigers 24/7, as they live in the house with her.
Most training, done through positive reinforcement, is done during the shows in short periods of a few minutes at a time. Tigers are known for their short attention span in training circles, and tend to sleep about 18 to 20 hours per day.
Some come to the show expecting to see the tigers whipped to do tricks, the trainer says.
“Then they come here and my tiger sits there and doesn’t want to do a trick,” she said, a somewhat common occurance, particularly during hot days. “If they’re not feeling it, they’re not feeling it.”
Aslan, her 4-year-old white Bengal, has taken longer to train. She says the females tend to be more food motivated and learn tricks more quickly.
“The boys just want to lay there and look pretty,” she joked. But Aslan proved her case on the spot, as he laid in the sun, not particularly eager to move for the meat Frisco offered after the show.
They even incorporated Aslan’s “laziness” into the show with a bit where they beg him to move somewhere by saying “pretty please.”
The tigers are fed about 10 to 15 pounds of chicken or beef every day. In the wild, they gorge about 50 pounds of food once every week or two.
Alternatives to the meat include whipped cream in a can.
“It’s like catnip to them,” the trainer said.
The show reminds attendees that natural breeding programs have preserved golden tabbies and snow white varieties like Kyla and Aslan in a world where tigers like them are expected to become extinct in the wild by 2025. Unrelenting pressures from habitat loss, retaliatory killings and poaching continue to kill off the remaining 3,500 in the wild as they compete for space with dense human populations.
But in the United States, trends to ban all wild animals in shows, including tigers, are on the rise, leaving traveling shows like the the one that has been in Frisco’s family for generations less places to go to.
Despite the controversy, she says people line up for the shows in the jurisdictions where they can still perform.
She says shows like theirs, in a way, help preserve the tigers for future generations to enjoy and connect with.
“I think a really good thing is for people to make a connection by seeing them up close and personally,” Frisco said, giving them a connection deeper than passively reading about them and how they are being robbed of their habitat to the point of extinction.
She also asks the public not to judge all animal trainers based on the bad ones.
“You really have to educate yourself on the facilites you’re seeing,” she said, with good actors and bad ones in animal training, circuses, santuaries and zoos.
Ironically, she’s been mauled by household dogs several times, but has never once been hurt by the majestic striped cats that most consider “wild.” Scars on her face from necessary surgeries serve as a reminder of who the “real” beasts are in her life.