Sunday, August 13, 2006

Jungle show tries to destroy rumors about Great White sharks

Fairgoers who venture into the Jungle area of the Illinois State Fair, in the former Happy Hollow, may have to fight crowds as thick as any real jungle.

At noon Saturday, the lion and tigers performed for a packed house, as did the sharks at a 4 p.m. show. Wild animals seem to be the hit at this year's fair.

"Last year, the area was good," said Amy Bliefnick, Illinois State Fair manager. "This year, we think we've made it even better with five shows of lions, bears, dogs, sharks and an alligator. We've been pleased there are crowds at every show."

Vincent Von Duke and his wife, Georgina, want their lion and tiger show to be educational as well as entertaining.

They've brought - and are living with - a Bengal tiger, African lion, a white tiger and a Siberian tiger. The animals jump through a burning hoop, crawl under a fence and play with each other while the Von Dukes share tiger and lion information with fair patrons.

For example, an adult tiger or lion will eat 20 to 30 pounds of beef or chicken.

"The beef is special, but the chicken comes from Wal-Mart," Vincent said. "They like the leg quarters."

"We raised all of these from babies," he added. "I'm a sixth generation animal trainer. My dad taught me. I've been doing this since I was 8 years old. And yes, I still have all my fingers and toes."
He trains them using chunks of red meat that he offers to the animals from a long stick.
"The first word they learn is 'no' and they end up knowing about 25 words," Georgina said.
The difficult part of the job is maintaining the animals' health and well being.

"It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Vincent said. "We bring them in the semi - like a big horse trailer, and we stay on one end of it. It's like taking care of babies who don't grow up. To keep Zazu, the male lion, looking good, he gets shampooed and cream rinsed every day."
The couple travels 20 to 30 weeks a year, then keeps the animals at home in Sarasota, Fla. the remainder of the time.

"All the animals are captive-bred," Vincent said. "They're used to hot weather. In Africa, it's 145 degrees in the shade. We have a special permit for them and are federally licensed."

Each of his animals has a name and personality.

"They're very, very smart, very intelligent," he said. "They're very majestic.

Besides the four in the show, he also is training two 26-month old tigers.

"It's a long process to train them, taking at least two years."

The current show includes a 4-year old African lion named Chi Chi; a big male lion named Zazu, age 12 and weighing 650 pounds; Kaya, a Bengal tiger weighing 700 pounds, and a Siberian tiger named Sheik, just older than 3 years old.

"The younger ones like to play; the older ones like to sleep 23 and a half hours," Vincent said. "In the wild, they are on the move, looking for food. Here, that food comes in a stainless steel dish with eggs, milk and steak, and they get lazy. Everything they eat is protein."

The Bengal tiger, Kaya, white with black stripes, is on the endangered species list.

"Her skin and body parts sell for $60,000 to $70,000," Georgina said. "America is the largest breeder of white tigers, and they're shipped all over the world. There are 400 in the U.S. today, and every one is microchipped."

Lions take twice as long to train as tigers.

"Tigers are very independent; lions are much more loveable," Georgina said.

Elsewhere in the Jungle area, a barefoot Colby Cheney waits for his next shark show to start.

Cheney, 34, of Indiana, dives into a tank with two great white sharks - Loretta, 61/2 feet, and Little Larry, 21/2 feet in length. He tries to dispel shark rumors and make the show entertaining.

"I dive all over the world with sharks," said Cheney, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Desert Storm. "Sharks aren't dangerous at all. Nine out of 10 times when someone gets hurt, it's because they're screwing with the sharks."

Of the 400 shark species, only 25 have attacked humans.

Most are quite gentle, he said.

Great white sharks have 300 teeth in eight rows so they can eat crustacea, crabs and lobster.
"You can't train a shark," he said. "But you can condition them."


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