MY FAMILY AND I ALWAYS joked that our quarter horse Lady Barnum never got over being in the circus. She was Texas’ farewell gift to Ringling Brothers animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams on his final tour with the Greatest Show on Earth. With head high and back straight, she would saunter around the corral at my grandfather’s ranch, and she knew that she was a star. Even decades after her tour de force, the circus still remained in Lady’s blood.
Seeking some understanding about the power of the three rings, I contacted Ringling animal trainer Mark Oliver Gebel, the son of Lady’s former owner, and talked to him about what it was like to be raised under the big top. I managed to catch the native Houstonian after his act. Fresh from the tiger cage, he gave me this advice about animal training: “Don’t do it at home. It’s not a regular desk job.”
texasmonthly.com: Your childhood is kind of atypical for what most American kids get to experience. Most of us want to run away and join the circus, and you were already there. What was it like?
Mark Oliver Gebel: For me, it was just my life, just like anybody’s normal life. I was born and raised here, and so I have been traveling all of my life. It’s everything. It’s school, hard work, and responsibility. It’s fun. It’s everything packed into one. We just up and moved every week.
texasmonthly.com: Was that hard as a kid?
MOG: I have been doing it all of my life, so you get adapted very well. It’s what we do.
texasmonthly.com: Tell me some of the early stories that you remember from your childhood.
MOG: As far back as I can remember?
MOG: When I was younger, just waking up in the morning, the first thing I had to do was school. I mean I had to do my school, and when that was finished, then I could do circus—and that was helping my dad with the animals, training, practicing. As I got older, I started performing. The rest is history. As I got older, I was doing more and more, and of course, now I work the tigers. I guess that’s what I have been working up to all my life.
texasmonthly.com: How hard was it to follow in the footsteps of your father, Gunther Gebel-Williams?
MOG: How hard? Ah, well in a way it was hard, but in a way it was easy because I had my father there supporting me and helping me. It wasn’t like I was just trying to do it. I was doing it together with my father, which was fun. I wasn’t trying to compete with my dad. Working with my dad was the best part of my life.
texasmonthly.com: Did you feel pressured, like you had to do that?
MOG: Absolutely not. My father always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do, because he knew that this takes a lot of hard work and a lot of responsibility. Everything takes hard work, but you really have to dedicate your life to doing what you do. Working with animals is seven days a week. You are like a doctor on call twenty-four hours a day. You are always there for them, and you have to really love what you do. It’s not just a job. It’s a hobby. It’s what you do in your off-time as well. It’s your life.
texasmonthly.com: Describe a typical day for you during the circus tour.
MOG: Never is one day the same, but they always start early and end late. That’s for sure. Of course, the beginning of the week we are traveling to a new city. Every Tuesday we are setting up the arena and animal compound, getting things ready for the opening performance on Wednesday, and we’ll be doing some rehearsals, some practicing with some of the new animals in the morning. And then it depends on what the show schedules are—like today we had a morning show just now—and in between some of that time trying to get groceries and do the things that you have to do to support your family. On Saturdays we always have three performances, so you are busy all day. On Sundays we are performing and moving out from the city and getting ready to travel. So every day is just jam-packed.
texasmonthly.com: How do you go about developing a rapport with the animals? It is important in training, isn’t it?
MOG: Absolutely. Very important. That starts at a very early age—being together with them and spending time with them. We have a special relationship with our animals, and the bond that I have with them is close. Some of the elephants have seen me grow up. They’ve been with me for thirty-one years now, so our relationship is very, very close and very family-oriented.
texasmonthly.com: Can you describe that relationship?
MOG: The elephants I have grown up with are family to me. I don’t take them out to dinner every night like to a restaurant, but they come out of line from the rest of them to visit with me because they enjoy spending time with me and me talking to them.
texasmonthly.com: What attracted you to the elephants when you were younger? I know you started when you were two.
MOG: Just being with the elephants in general was something that I loved doing. That’s been my life. That was the only animal I was allowed to get around when I was little.
texasmonthly.com: What did you do with them when you were younger?
MOG: I was trying not to get stepped on, I guess.
texasmonthly.com: That does help. You’ve worked with giraffes. You’ve worked with tigers. You’ve worked with zebras. What’s your favorite animal to train?
MOG: I wouldn’t say that there is a specific animal. I love all of them so much.
texasmonthly.com: Is there a certain type of animal that is more challenging to train?
MOG: Each one is different in his or her own way. You can’t say, “Oh, the tiger is easier than the elephants.” Each one is an individual, and you have to spend that time together to get to know each one.
texasmonthly.com: Is there a difference in the training philosophy when you are approaching an elephant versus a tiger or a zebra?
MOG: Each approach is different. You have to approach it very calmly and very relaxed. Then you can make that animal feel comfortable with you, and then you can do anything.
texasmonthly.com: Have you ever been close to getting hurt?
MOG: No. Knock on wood. I’ve had the experience of many years of watching my dad.
texasmonthly.com: Are you ever afraid during the different situations you encounter during rehearsals or performances?
MOG: I can’t say that. Nervousness is there. There is always a chance, and you are always aware of the situation. You never take for granted what you do and what you are working with. You have to respect these animals one hundred percent.
texasmonthly.com: Your sons are a little young, but does it look like they might possibly follow in your footsteps? Your older son . . .
MOG: He’s three right now, but one never knows. You have to support them in whatever they decide because whatever they want to do, they have to want to do it so that they are successful at it. It is not because I’m doing it or Dad is doing it. Really you have to support them in whatever they decide to do in their future.
texasmonthly.com: He’s hanging around the elephants a little bit like the way you started.
MOG: Yeah. He adores the elephants, but he likes the tigers too.
texasmonthly.com: Do you let him get close to the tigers?
MOG: Just with me holding him.
texasmonthly.com: Is he not afraid of them?
MOG: Ah, no. Absolutely not. I don’t think he knows what that is because Dad does it, so it should be all right.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think the circus has changed since you have been in the ring?
MOG: That’s the unique thing about the show—every year we put a new show together, and of course, we have some performers whose acts are the same like myself, but in general, the whole show is totally different from the tour that you saw last year. The technology, the lighting, the sound, and the atmosphere enhance what we as performers do and make it look that much better. We always try to do something different and bring something new to the show. That’s the challenge.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the audience has changed as far as their expectations because of what they are able to experience at the movies?
MOG: No matter what you see in the movie theater, when you come to see our show, it’s live. When you are watching the performers do what they do and fly through the air and attempt these feats that they do, they make it look very easy, but these are very dangerous things, and the people who are watching, like yourself, have to sit there and wonder, “What would happen if this or this?”
texasmonthly.com: When you were little, did you ever want to be anything besides an animal trainer?
MOG: No. If I did, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.
texasmonthly.com: Well, I didn’t know if you wanted to be a clown at first?
MOG: It might have been easier.
texasmonthly.com: What attracted you to being an animal trainer?
MOG: Having fun and working with my dad. Doing the things that we did together was not just work, but fun. And that’s why I’m doing what I do now, because I enjoy it. Working together with my father was always a lot of fun.
texasmonthly.com: What were some of the earliest things that he showed you that have stayed with you?
MOG: I can’t say any specific things. Over the many years, I think I have picked up quite a bit. Definitely patience—don’t rush anything and always take your time. Good things will come if you take your time. I am not the most patient person. I can’t stand sitting in traffic.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve developed patience with animals. It’s another thing if it is people in cars.
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth will be in San Antonio July 3—7, College Station July 9 & 10, Houston July 12—21, and Dallas July 24—August 4.