Nov. 02, 2008
"Now walk her back this way!" Dirk Arthur commands me.
If I wasn't hyperventilating, I'd be laughing. Here's the thing about holding a leash with a 500-pound tiger at the end of it: It's the tiger who walks you.
Today, I'm an assistant trainer for the Tropicana headliner, who keeps 13 ferocious felines on his ranch in southwest Las Vegas. Nine star in Arthur's "Xtreme Magic" show. (Since magician Rick Thomas ended his Orleans run last year, it has been the only big-cat production in town.)
My day began scooping poop-flecked wood shavings out of the trailers behind the van Arthur drives to the Tropicana six afternoons a week. Then I hosed down cages and chopped up raw chicken thighs, which -- along with raw beef -- will consist of the cats' main course tonight. (They eat between 10 to 15 pounds of meat per day, contributing to a monthly Food 4 Less bill of about $5,000.)
Originally, I requested to train a tiger myself. Arthur said that was impossible.
"They'll bite you," he replied, explaining that they don't bite him because he has trained most of them since they were small.
"It's part of the psychology of animal training," he said. "We want them to always feel that we're the ones in charge." (I understood because I used to date women much younger than me for the same reason.)
Then I asked to load one of Arthur's tigers into its trailer. Again, he replied, impossible.
"It's just too dangerous," Arthur said.
I settled for walking one on a leash for 30 seconds.
Now, frankly, I'm wishing that was impossible, too.
Sabrina is the 15-year-old star of the disappearing-tiger trick that climaxes Arthur's show and was performed earlier this year on David Letterman's magic week. Arthur claims the white tiger is his oldest and most docile animal. (He didn't have any without teeth. I asked.)
Upon entering Sabrina's cage, however, Arthur is reared up on. He is forced to slap the docile animal off his leg.
"You ready?" he then asks me.
In fact, my only preparation for this task is having gone to the bathroom before it. Oh, and there was also that piece of advice I got from Yvette Calder, one of Arthur's three assistants.
"Don't be skittish," she said, explaining that big cats sense fear and react to it.
This ran completely counter to the advice that Arthur offered me, however: "Try to protect your neck, because they will usually go for your neck."
Arthur -- who moved to Vegas in 1996, performing in "Jubilee!" and at the Silverton, Plaza and Riviera before landing at the Tropicana in 2005 -- began his animal collection with the white doves required for his childhood magic act in Los Angeles.
"I had this trick where a bird would shrink smaller and smaller until it turned into an egg," he recalled.
Once, at a county fair, all 10 of the doves necessary for this trick flew away in the middle of it.
"People thought it was part of the show," Arthur said. "They thought they could take free doves home. They were like, 'Thank you!' "
In the late '80s, after Siegfried & Roy's success inspired him to buy two male lions, Arthur quickly learned that big cats offer much less wiggle room when it comes to mistakes.
"A lion knocked me down and started to bite me on my neck," Arthur said.
The magician was alone in his backyard, no backup, yet was able to free himself unscathed. (Now there's a magic trick.)
"I managed to punch him and squirm out from underneath him before he killed me," Arthur explained.
He no longer works with lions.
"Aww, she likes you," Arthur says while handing over Sabrina's leash.
Yes, and I'm sure she'd like me better had I shampooed with A1 sauce. Now is as good a time as any to point out the recent track record of tiger-human friendships ...
In 2005, a Siberian tiger killed a zoo worker in the Ukraine who entered to clean its cage. Also that year, a Siberian killed a 17-year-old girl posing for a photo at a Kansas animal sanctuary while its handler attempted to restrain it.
In 2006, a Minnesota tiger breeder was mauled to death inside a Bengal's pen. Also that year, a Siberian at the San Francisco Zoo devoured most of its trainer's right arm.
In 2007, a woman was killed by a tiger at an exotic animal farm in Canada, a teenager was killed by a runaway Siberian at the San Francisco Zoo, and two Royal Bengals killed a man in India who stuck his arm into their cage to take a cell-phone photo.
And here I am in 2008, hoping that my life insurance agent doesn't subscribe to the R-J.
"All right, Sabrina," Arthur says calmly, after quickly hopping over the leash to get between me and kitty.
Unexpectedly, Sabrina has begun pulling me toward the cage of Thurston the snow tiger, which Arthur warned me not to get near because "the smaller cats are more playful and can reach underneath and grab you."
Of course, the most famous tiger attack happened at The Mirage in 2003, when Roy Horn was bitten in the neck and dragged offstage by Montecore, one of his and Siegfried's white tigers. The magician remains partially paralyzed.
"I think it was hard for Roy to have a great rapport with all the cats, because he had so many in the show and there's only so much time in a day," said Arthur, adding that, "of course, sometimes wild animals try to attack you just because they're wild."
Arthur takes the leash from my trembling right hand. He walks Sabrina away from Thurston and back into her cage. I perform a quick finger count, then breathe a sigh of relief deep enough to feel in my numb toes.
"You held on pretty well," Arthur says. "I'm impressed." (I didn't realize that letting a tiger escape was among my available options.)
"OK," Arthur says, "now I'll tell you."
He spaces his index fingers about three inches apart.
"Her teeth are, like, this long," he says, "and she has all of them."
Arthur and Calder laugh.
Suddenly, I hear five of my least favorite words possible to string together in a sentence.
"I didn't get the shot," R-J photographer John Gurzinski says while staring at his digital camera monitor and shaking his head.
He explains that Sabrina and I were half in the sunlight, half in the shade at all times, ruining every picture.
I wait for a "just kidding" that never comes.
"You have to do it again," the photographer says.
To the list of things important enough to risk my life for, I now apparently must add "better lighting."
Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.