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PURR-FORMING PUSSYCATS: LIFE IN RING BEATS LIFE IN THE `JUNGLE’

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In a world sadly lacking in contemporary role models - where athletic prowess has become synonymous with drugs and sexual excess and where politicians fall prey to moral and monetary shenanigans - it came as a pleasant surprise to find a performing artist whom youngsters (and black kids in particular) can look up to.

Animal trainer Tyrone Taylor is very tall, which also helps in the "look up to" department. But as a black youth growing up in Detroit - a city that has seen its share of racial unrest - Taylor had plenty of chances to make some wrong choices.Instead, much like one of his sleek Bengal tigers, Taylor has gracefully made the leap from Detroit kid to professional model to center ring in the Greatest Show on Earth, with a couple of career detours along the way.

Taylor, along with the usual collection of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clowns, trapeze artists and death-defying acts, will entertain audiences during 10 performances Sept. 27-Oct. 2 at the Delta Center.

Tiger-trainer Taylor didn't exactly run away to join the circus. He just happened to stumble into it by chance.

Rather than becoming entangled in juvenile crime in the streets, Taylor - encouraged by his mother - tried modeling school. It was a little embarrassing at first (it's not easy for a young schoolboy to explain to his macho pals that he's studying to be a model . . . "Sorry, guys, I can't go out roaming the streets tonight . . . I've gotta work on my modeling technique.")

But it wasn't long before he discovered that trained models can make pretty good money.

"My family was originally from New York, but when my mother moved to Detroit she got me into the arts as a way to keep me focused. She was looking for a job that could keep me busy so I wouldn't get caught up with kids on the street. She wanted to keep me out of trouble and, when you're a kid, you're venturing toward that way."

During an interview at the end of August in a room beneath the Oakland Arena, Taylor took time following a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance to explain how he took up modeling and dancing at the age of 15 and, two years later, found himself awestruck by the circus.

Once he got over the initial fear of being teased by other kids at school, he took the modeling course his mother had discovered.

"Once I got into it I really enjoyed it. At 16 I was a professional model and doing some work around Detroit. It was really healthy. Then I found a way to get to New York, after explaining to Mom that New York is where you really need to be if you're a model," he said.

He and his cousins worked for a while for a studio in New York, then Taylor went back to Detroit for a short visit when he was 17. While there, he took some of his younger siblings to see the circus, which happened to be in town.

(Tyrone is the second oldest in his family. He has three younger brothers and two younger sisters, along with one older sister.)

When they got to the arena that day, they discovered that, somehow, there had been a mix-up with their tickets. While a gentleman from the show worked at straightening things out, he let the four youths wait backstage.

"There were all these clowns and showgirls in feathers, and everything was just zooming around us. The animals were right there across the hall. Then someone barked out, `Hey, kid, what're you doing back here?'

"It kind of scared me; then he asked if I was looking for a job. I said I was just waiting for someone - but if I WAS looking for a job, could I work with the animals. He said `You'll have to see Gunther about that.'

"Well, at the time I didn't have the slightest idea of who Gunther was, and I didn't really need a job anyway because I already had a good job and was making good money.

"So we finally went in and saw the show, and I was taken away when Gunther Gebel-Williams' name was announced. He was so hot he was on fire. He was running around and commanding the animals, and I saw his men running around there with him, and I really took note. Then I thought, `I really want to work with this guy,' so I went back and found the other guy (who was a con-ces-sion-aire) and took him up on his offer to sell snow cones."

Taylor's mom was really surprised when he told her his sudden change in plans. He'd just come to Detroit for a short visit - and now he was going to join the circus.

"Because the circus would be traveling, I figured that if the job didn't work out I could still get to California. I had all the options. I could always get back into modeling or I could work for Gunther or I could even just go back home.

"But selling snow cones was really healthy - running up and down stairs in the arenas. I was into athletics anyway, and this was a good way to keep in shape. I tend to really dig into whatever I'm doing and really make the best of it and try to enjoy it," he said.

Eventually, during the circus's next season, there was an opening on Gebel-Williams' horse crew. Taylor joined the crew, and this gave him an opportunity to work with Gunther and meet his son, Mark, who was being groomed to take over his father's act in a few years.

"Mark and I became good friends. We were both just kids, and I had brothers his age. I missed my family at home, so he taught me about animals and I taught him about life."

A short time later, when the circus reached Madison Square Garden for its annual New York run, Taylor began thinking about returning to his family, but Mark said he would see if his dad couldn't find Tyrone a spot in the elephant act. By the time the show had moved on to Philadelphia, Taylor had shifted from horses to elephants.

During the next six years, Taylor learned everything he possibly could with Gunther Gebel-Williams as his tutor and mentor.

"But I didn't want to be just another groom. In my heart and mind, I really wanted to be Gunther's top handler, and I set that goal for myself."

Then, about 1983, Taylor's career took yet another turn. He learned that one of the tiger act supervisors was returning home to Europe after 20 years with the circus, and he was offered a job with the tiger crew.

At first, Taylor thought he was just going to be pushing cages around and other routine tasks and he was reluctant to accept. But then Gebel-Williams explained, "You don't understand, I want you to be the boss of the tiger crew."

Taylor was stunned.

`Here was the greatest animal trainer of all time agreeing to train me. I had already learned a lot just by watching him and his son, and now he wanted to take me under his wing and teach me. Of course, I agreed to do it."

Taylor remained with the tigers until 1990, when Gebel-Williams retired at the conclusion of his triumphant "farewell tour."

With Gebel-Williams no longer performing, Taylor felt it was time for him, too, to move onto something else. By this time, Taylor had a family. One year earlier he had married a young schoolteacher he had met in Austin, Texas. She had just taken on a new job in Fort Worth, and - with his wife helping craft and send out resumes - Tyrone was hired to work with the elephants at the Fort Worth Zoo.

While this kept him closer to his family (the Taylors have three children, two daughters from his wife's previous marriage and their own son, Tevin, now 4 years old) and it was a nice change of pace, he still missed the tigers and performing.

"I'm convinced that God does work in mysterious ways," said Taylor, who noted that he met a gentleman who was visiting the Fort Worth Zoo. This fellow said he had his own private collection of tigers. He was having trouble with one of them and wondered of Taylor had any advice.

The upshot was - the man hired Taylor as a full-time trainer.

It was during this process that Taylor realized he could be a trainer, not just an apprentice.

More resumes were sent out - and Kenneth Feld, producer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, rehired Taylor at the end of the 1993 season.

And Tyrone Taylor is excited to be back in his element - putting his 11 graceful and snarling Bengal tigers through their paces and working once again in the circus's Red Unit with his friend, Mark Oliver Gebel.

While Taylor works solely with the tigers, Mark is busy with acts involving 18 elephants, 28 horses (including 14 Lipizzaners), four zebras, two llamas and five camels.

And Gunther is still there, too - but these days he's in the background. His title is now "vice president of animal care," supervising all of the animals in both the "Red" and "Blue" units of the circus.