By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
It’s a day seldom will ever forget, the day the circus came to town. Back in the day, when the circus arrived it was a chance for people to interact with exotic animals, witness extraordinary talent and dabble in a world so unlike their own.
The Shrine Circus has been visiting Milwaukee for years and 2018 is no different. Considered the largest circus in the US, with its entourage of man and beast, the circus will be performing Feb. 23-25 at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
Among those performing are trainer Ryan Holder and his tigers of which there is seven in total.
Holder has been working with tigers for the past nine years, although this is only his second year performing in Milwaukee.
“Ever since I was a kid I wanted to work with exotic animals,” Holder said.
As a child growing up in St. Louis, Holder often volunteered at the zoo and helped around the barn. He felt comfortable around large animals and fantasized about the day when he would work with his large animal of choice: elephants.
Then, at 21-years-old, Holder “ran away” and became an apprentice under a tiger trainer.
Although tigers weren’t his initial animal of interest Holder said he was “not scared but very careful.”
Holder viewed working with tigers just like people he said, each animal is different with a distinct personality.
Eventually, Holder’s mentor decided to step down and upon retirement he left with three tigers and a chance to perform in the spotlight. Now, Holder has seven tigers: two boys and five girls. The oldest is 13 and the youngest is four.
As their trainer, Holder spends 24/7 with his tigers. In fact, the tigers and Holder’s sleeping locations are separated by a mere wall.
Although tigers sleep 18-20 hours a day, Holder spends his time prepping their food, driving to their next location or organizing their training.
“My life revolves around my animals,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to them.”
Tigers don’t care if it is someone’s birthday or a special holiday, he explained. For them, it’s just another day and they except the same quality of life. His dedication to large animals includes raising money to protect wild tigers and donating to the International Elephant Foundation.
The relationship he’s built with his tigers is what he hopes to portray during their performance.
Holder explained that each part of their act is based on the tiger’s natural ability and movement.
“You can see what they’re capable of doing,” he said.
One of his tigers can moonwalk to “Billie Jean” and four of them can roll over in unison.
“It takes a very long time to build up to that,” he said.
Each performance is roughly eight to ten minutes long, so Holder created a website to help people better understand the care and dedication that goes into being a tiger trainer.
His site and Facebook page, showmetigers.com, offers a behind the scenes look into the amount of time, patience and meat that’s required of Holder. There’s also selfies and videos including one where his youngest tiger is learning how to roll over.
“People have no idea the time and effort that go into a product,” Holder said, in regard to his act and the Shrine Circus in general.
Holder believes that in this age of technology people may not remember a viral video, but they are going to remember sitting in the stands and watching a tiger lean his head against his trainer.
To see a live performance of Holder, his tigers and the rest of the performers visit http://www.uwmilwaukeepantherarena.com/events/2017-tripoli-shrine-circus/ for tickets.