"The only person who can get their head ripped off by a gator is me," says Ted McRae, a man who should know. McRae, a.k.a. T.M. the Gator Guy, shoves his cranium into the mouths of 10-foot reptiles, every day and twice on weekends, as part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "I've been bit and kicked and clawed and thrown by gators, snakes, and just about everything in the circus," he boasts.
When the Greatest Show on Earth rolls into town this weekend for a nine-day stand, it will also bring along David Larible the Prince of Laughter, Sara the Tiger Whisperer, and all the usual big-top stuff that's been thrilling audiences for 132 years. "Everything in the circus can be dangerous," McRae says, not entirely accurately. "That's why people come: the thrills and the chills."
Thrills and chills come more sparingly for Jamie Koenig, the circus's exotic animal handler. "I've never had a [traumatic experience] with any of my animals," says the Cleveland native, who does not stick her head in animal orifices. "They're all very gentle. The alpacas and goats basically pick up paper and put it in a basket and play with balls." Danger, for Koenig, is more of the poo-on-the-shoe variety.
McRae, on the other hand, risks life and dome for circus crowds. He started his big-top career in the mid-'90s, as a lion and tiger trainer with another circus. When Ringling Bros. came calling, he quickly changed his field of expertise. "I had a day and a half to move from the cat act to the gator act," he says. "I was asked if I would be interested in doing something else. I'm glad to be working, and it's fun."
McRae says he never really had the childhood urge to run away with the circus, but he's always loved animals -- and daredevil backyard stunts. Especially daredevil backyard stunts. "I was always the one climbing the radio towers and jumping off bridges," he explains. "I was always the weird kid on the block.
"Everybody in the neighborhood would run from the big Rottweiler down the street. I would walk up to it and pet it. It could have killed me just as quick as an alligator. The magic of it is, I ended up in the circus doing this kind of stuff."
That's what makes circus people circus people. Most folks would never think of sticking their heads in the mouth of something capable of taking down a cow. "Some people just don't scare very easy," McRae shrugs. "This isn't scary to me at all."
Still, he cautions, don't get too friendly with any large lizards you might encounter. "I don't trust the gators," he admits, adding that they are not trainable. "I trust myself. There's no room for fear in this."
And if his hand slips while, say, holding open a gator's mouth? "I probably wouldn't live through it," he says.
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