Even though acts involving the big cats is one of the biggest attractions at the circus, most big-top enthusiasts can only name a few of the animal trainers that have entertained audiences for more than a century.
The names that most often come to mind are: Isaac Van Amburgh, Clyde Beatty, Gunther Gebel-Williams, Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy, and North Dakota’s Wade Burck.
Burck is one of very few trainers who were American born. Unlike many predecessors, he stressed love and kindness rather than intimidation and cruelty. Burck did not carry a large whip with him in the ring, and his training method was based on rewards.
He was the first trainer to get 16 tigers to simultaneously obey his commands, and he became the only trainer to work almost exclusively with white tigers.
Wade Gardner Burck was born Sept. 16, 1954, in Jacksonville, Fla., to George and Gertrude (Gardner) Burck. At the time, his father was in the U.S. Navy. When he was 9 months old, his father was discharged, and the family moved to North Dakota.
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George Burck moved his family to Hillsboro, where he eventually became the hospital administrator. Because the Burcks owned a three-acre lot, Wade Burck had the ability to raise many animals.
His love of animals was illustrated when, as a child, he found a sick squirrel that he took home and nursed back to health.
After graduating from Hillsboro High School in 1971, Wade Burck knew what he wanted out of life — to care for animals. After receiving his father's blessings, he traveled to Naples, Fla., and found employment as an "apprentice keeper" at a zoo. Burck's life took a major turn the next year when Lou Regan offered Burck $35 a week to work with him at the Shrine Circus as his "apprentice trainer."
Although Regan specialized in tigers, he also trained elephants, chimps, horses, camels, bears, etc. Tigers were the biggest challenge, being much more difficult to train than lions. Lions would follow a leader. If you train the leader to do something, the others will follow. Since tigers are loners, each one had to be taught separately. Lions also can be intimidated, but tigers cannot.
In the beginning, life with the circus was lonely for Burck. Many of the people who worked there were interrelated, and Burck was an outsider. Eventually, he met an 18-year old aerialist named Margaret Duke, who was much more sociable. Even though Duke came from a circus family, she became friends with Burck. In 1975, Regan told Burck that he had taught him everything he knew, and now he was ready to be on his own. Burck then married Duke on Sept. 11, 1975.
The most celebrated tiger trainer at the time was Gunther Gebel-Williams. Instead of developing his own persona, Burck began to emulate Williams down to minor details. This became apparent to those around him, and soon the other circus employees started to call him Gunther. This inspired Burck even more, and in 1977, he dyed his hair blond. He became a workaholic, obsessed with out-performing his role model.
Burck neglected his pregnant wife, devoting almost every waking hour to his tigers. This came to a head when Margaret went into labor and asked her husband to take her to the hospital. He replied, "Don't bother me. . . You know where the (car) keys are. Go!" Soon after the birth of their son, Adam, the couple separated.
They later tried reconciliation, resulting in the birth of Eric, but the marriage failed to work. The couple divorced after four years of marriage. Burck realized that his wife and assistants left because he was attempting to be somebody other than himself. He stopped trying to be Williams, even allowing his hair to return to its natural brown color.
Burck was given custody of his two sons, but he was now lonely. This was alleviated in 1979 when he was joined by his younger brother Mike, who served as his assistant for the next several years. Mike Burck arrived none too soon. In 1980, Wade Burck suffered his most severe attack from an angry tiger.
During a performance outside of Boston, two male tigers were fighting over a female. Burke tried to break up the fight by pulling on the tail of one of the tigers. The tiger turned around and grabbed him by the face, breaking his jaw. Burck managed to break free, but the tiger bit him on the shoulder, breaking his collarbone, and started dragging him around. Mike Burck managed to slide a stick through the tiger's jaw and break his grip on Burck.
Burck established his own unique act by using almost all white tigers. One of the people who noticed this was Irvin Feld, who had recently repurchased the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. There were two units to the circus — the red and the blue.
The tiger trainer for the red was Williams, but there would soon be an opening for the blue, and Burck was hired. Burck built a huge reputation as an outstanding trainer and was featured in stories in People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and many other national publications.
Burck no longer performs but continues to train tigers. The trained tiger performer in the family is his son Adam, who is now with the Shrine Circus.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at email@example.com.)