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Gunther Gebel-Williams

Gunther Gebel-Williams

Sept. 12, 1934 - July 19, 2001

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Gunther Gebel-Williams was born in Schweidnitz, Lower Silesia, Germany Sept. 12, 1934.

In the days after World War Two, his mother joined the Circus Williams as a seamstress in 1947, and young Gunther began performing as an acrobat at 12. and became a self-taught animal trainer for Circus Williams in his native Germany.

Irvin Feld brought Gunther to the United States to perform with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1968 for a reported two million dollars for a four-year contract.

Gunther set sail to the U.S. with seventeen elephants nine tigers, thirty-eight horses, and a various other and landed landed in New York on November 15, 1968.

Gunther Gebel-Williams starred with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from 1968 to 1990.

Gunther never missed a performance because of illness or injury, and he was injured by his animals many times during his career. Gunther worked with elephants, tigers, leopards, lions, panthers, mountain lions, horses, goats, camels, zebras, and a giraffe.

Gunther was the principal heir-apparent to the tradition of Clyde Beatty, a dashing character who dominated the American circus scene in the mid-20th century by routinely walking into cages filled with huge cats. Beatty was usually armed with a chair, a whip and sometimes even a revolver so that cats would not doubt who was boss.

Mr. Gebel-Williams admired Beatty, but he had no use for chairs or pistols (loaded or unloaded) or anything else that would threaten or injure his animals. Whatever the animals did or tried to do to him, he did not regard himself as their boss. He communicated with them using his commanding presence in the ring (he was only 5 feet 4 inches tall), his voice and the bits of meat he gave to them to make sure they understood when he was pleased.

''Gunther single-handedly changed the face of animal training while setting the standard of performance for circus performers throughout the world,'' said Kenneth Feld, Irvin's son, who has run the circus since his father's death in 1984. ''He inspired an entire generation of Americans with his unique and special bond with animals, changing forever the relationship between animals and mankind.'' He did it without threats or brute force.

''I have never been stricken with the man-against-beast syndrome,'' Gunthe wrote (with Toni Reinhold) in his autobiography, ''Untamed,'' which was published by William Morrow in 1991. ''Rather, I built a world around the animals with whom I worked, and in it I was their father and they were my children.''

He said he had ''a special kind of respect for my animals and it is mutual.''

''Respect is the foundation of my training style,'' he said. ''I worked with tigers as a trainer, never a tamer. I taught them to listen, but still be tigers. I never tried to break their spirits and so I did not use brutality. To train my animals I used words, always words. I'd say 'come here' to any one of the elephants and it would walk right over to me.''

When Gunther Gebel-Williams started his career as a boy in Germany after World War II and Beatty was at the peak of his fame in the United States, people thought of animal training and performance with dangerous animals as an admirable example of raw courage. By the time Mr. Gebel-Williams retired, society had changed its attitudes considerably, with many people believing the animals were exploited in the interests of show business.

Please Note:
In his memory, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has established the Gunther Gebel-Williams Foundation, which will honor his lifelong commitment to the partnership between humans and animals. Contributions made in his memory can be sent to the Gunther Gebel-Williams Foundation, P.O. Box 3500 Falls Church, VA 22043-3500.


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