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Lions, Tigers and Circuses--Oh My!

Vincent Von Duke is a sixth-generation animal trainer, who performed at the New York State Fairgrounds with the Tigris Shrine Circus.

For Vincent Von Duke, training lions and tigers is a family business. His family came to America from Europe in the 1920s and started training the large felines. Von Duke is continuing the tradition today as a sixth-generation trainer with his two lions and three tigers: a male lion, a female lion, a white tiger, red Siberian tiger and orange Bengal tiger.

            Von Duke brought his five felines to the 77th Annual Tigris Shrine Circus held at The Great New York State Fair on April 2 and 3. Von Duke performed with his tigers for around 15 minutes, which included the animals jumping through hoops of fire, much to the delight of vast amount of children in the audience.

            “That’s the magic of the thing, they go in the ring and the animals come running out and the little kids line up,” Von Duke said. “Their eyes light up and it makes everything worthwhile.”

            Von Duke “has been in the cage” for 36 years and jokes that he still has all of his fingers and toes, which means he must be doing something right. He has traveled all over the country with his 600-pound cats, spanning from Seattle to Bangor, Maine.

            It’s a detailed process that goes into being a lion and tiger trainer. He’s with his animals 24-7 and has been with them for their entire lives, most notably a 23-year-old female he’s been with since she was a pound. He says the animals are like his children.

            The mornings of shows, he’s waking them up, feeding them water, cleaning cages and getting them ready to perform. Their act on Friday consisted mostly of walking across scaffolds and running around.

            While Von Duke enjoys his job, there have been some bruises along the way.

             “The last incident I had they pulled off the end of my pinkie. It was during Thanksgiving, they were getting turkeys, it’s something different, its usually beef and chicken,” Von Duke said. “It was turkey day, and so they are getting turkeys, and it slid down the stick a little bit, I went to push it back, and my 23-year-old female grabbed it, not meaning to, but they get excited during dinner time, pulled it off. I stuck it back on pretty good.”           

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