Picture Julia Roberts or Gwyneth Paltrow on the big screen, bossing around seven quarter-ton Bengal tigers in a circus ring. Typical Hollywood casting, right? Great for box office, but tiger tamers just don't look like that.
Just as the real-life Erin Brockovich proved that Hollywood doesn't always have to make this stuff up, the lanky blond, blue-eyed Sara Houcke has strutted her way into the spotlight during her first seven months as the tiger trainer for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
But though Houcke (pronounced "hook") may be one of the prettiest performers to command the center ring since Marilyn Monroe climbed aboard a Ringling elephant in 1955, it's the 23-year-old's ability to "talk tiger" with snarling big cats that has endeared her to audiences.
Just seven months after first performing before an audience, she's been dubbed the "horse whisperer of tiger tamers."
Houcke has incorporated her own methods for handling the pointy-toothed beasts. There's no whip cracking or yelling commands to intimidate the tigers when Houcke is in the ring. She instead uses the whip merely to cue the tigers. And keeping her distance from the animals is not an option for Houcke, who rewards them with hugs, kisses and chunks of raw meat that they eat right out of her hand.
Even outside the spotlight, she'll pull up a chair and hang out with the big cats while they're in their cages or in the playpen.
Houcke doesn't seem concerned about comments that her physical contact with the tigers is foolhardy.
"If something happens, maybe I will change," she says.
Her up-close technique is probably more dangerous than the old-school way. Though she declines to directly discuss other trainers' methods, she believes her method is not only better for the tigers but safer for her as well. Although the animals are wild, she doesn't believe that the tigers would attack her without reason.
"If anything ever happened, it would not be the tiger's fault," Houcke insists. "It would be because I was in the way or in the wrong place."
Houcke's hands-on techniques fit with Ringling's desire to go "outside the norm" of the traditional tiger tamer, says Ringling Chairman Kenneth Feld.
Southern Californians can witness the rapport between the beauty and the beasts today through Aug. 6 with stops at the Long Beach Arena, Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim and the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
When P.T. Barnum began 130 years ago what would become known as "the Greatest Show on Earth," the circus was just about the only place for the public to see exotic animals.
Feld says the circus fills a similar role today.
"The environment is shrinking," he says. "If people are going to see these animals, they're going to have to see them in a place like the circus."
With children interested in video games and computer-generated characters, the circus may also be one of the few places left to see live feats of daring.
The difference between Barnum's day and now is that audiences can be concerned about the animals' care.
In Houcke, Ringling has a dazzling performer who answers concerns about the well-being of the animals.
"Sara presents a new way of working with animals," Feld says. "She shows them respect."
"I don't read their minds," says Houcke, though watching her interact with the animals, it appears that's exactly what she does, interpreting the meaning of a tiger's snarl or stare or growl.
Over lunch at a Southwestern cafe on a sweltering 110-degree day during a Ringling stop in Phoenix, Houcke was dressed in black, from her shades down to her wedge sandals, her nails polished deep red.
"I hate the heat," says Houcke, who is accustomed to the mild summer temperatures of Germany and Switzerland, where she grew up as a seventh-generation (on her mother's side) circus performer.
When the shades come off, her soft, youthful features belie the fact that she earns a living risking her life with wild animals. She's a young woman brimming with curiosity--and a certain amount of amazement at the way her life has evolved over the last six months.
"Just about everybody's dream in Europe is to come to America and work for Ringling," Houcke says, her English inflected with a Swiss-German accent.
Houcke, who speaks four languages fluently and has lived on her own since her late teens, learned her trade from her French father, Sacha, a fourth-generation animal trainer with European circuses. When the veterinarian would come to see the animals, "my father would explain everything to me," she says.
Houcke grew up around animals, helping her father care for horses, zebras, elephants and an assortment of other circus critters. She fed them, cleaned cages and doctored the sick or injured.
"I didn't know until later it was a learning experience," she says.
At age 4, Houcke recalls, she said to her father, "Daddy, I want to work."
"He would put me on the pony," she says, "and then he'd rear up."