As a youth living in Germany, Alexander Lacey remembers playing with his 1-pound cat named Max.
One day, the cat went missing and after a long search it turned up hiding in the family washing machine.
As Max grew larger, he often retreated to his favorite hiding spot and kept playing with Lacey, forging a pet bond to which many people can relate. Max is now approaching 700 pounds, which is not uncommon considering he is a royal Bengal tiger.
Lacey, 39, will put the frolicking between man and cat on display alongside nine other tigers, six African lions and a leopard named Mowgli at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus going on through Sunday at Amalie Arena.
"People coming to see the show are often very surprised with the relationship I have with the animals," Lacey said. "I know them well."
Lacey's parents owned two zoos and noticed the big cats were getting bored until it came time for the keepers to interact with them. Lacey helped out at the zoos during his childhood and grew close to the 11th generation lions and ninth generation tigers as well, treating them like siblings.
After returning from boarding school at 17, Lacey decided to forgo a career as a veterinarian or architect to help his parents train lions and tigers for shows. He has traveled the world with his cat menagerie ever since, including a performance at the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo where Ringling Bros. discovered Lacey 14 years ago and invited him to run away with the "Greatest Show on Earth."
Lacey didn't accept the invitation until 2011, when he decided to move with his wife, Katie Azzario Lacey, an aerialist in the show, and their daughter Katrina, now 12, to the United States.
"It's a great lifestyle, but it isn't for everybody," Lacey said. "What people don't realize is that big cats have excellent sense of sound and sight, every time we arrive in a new city, it's a completely different environment for them."
Lacey says his big cats have personalities just like people. Some are excitable, which is why you see him using what he calls his "guides" to keep a safe distance, and some are lazy. But none are sedated, declawed or defanged before he enters the high-strength, stainless steel netting ring on the circus floor at show time.
The big cats have learned what Lacey calls "animal sign language" and he also communicates with them in English and German. He is so close with his feline family he can identify the cats by listening to their roars, and he is not afraid to get close enough to kiss the animals that consume 8 to 16 pounds of meat daily.
Such antics belie the danger Lacey faces in each and every show.
"My lions are trained to attack on command," Lacey said. "They could eat me."
Of course, the edge-of-your seat possibility of danger is a big draw for circus attendees. While Lacey said he has never had any accidents, documented lion and tiger taming mishaps date to the 1800s and have happened as recently as 2015. Perhaps the most publicized accident was the 2003 injury that ended Siegfried & Roy's stage careers when their 7-year old white tiger severely wounded Roy during a show in Las Vegas.
This is one reason the circus handles its own setup when it comes to the big cat performance. While many arena staffers know how to convert an ice floor or basketball floor into a stage venue for a concert, when it comes to lions and tigers Ringling Bros. stage manager, Aziz Souik oversees the safety and setup.
"The setup is a very organized process from start to finish," said Souik, who manages a large crew all with very specific tasks. "There are multiple crew members who follow the setup and do all the safety checks, which is completed before any cat enters the ring."
If you are planning to attend the show, Lacey invites you to meet some of the animals and ask him and other performers questions beginning 90 minutes prior to the show's start.
Times correspondent Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]