When the Culpepper & Meriweather Circus leaves its hometown of Hugo, Okla., to entertain people around the United States, its attractions include acrobats, horses, music, lights, cotton candy and more.
But there’s one aspect of every one of the operations’ shows that stands above the rest: The big cats.
“That’s what keeps us in the business,” said C&M Circus owner and big cat specialist Trey Key. “They’re what most people come to see.”
A native of Augusta, Ga., Key has been with the C&M Circus for 21 years and owned it for 20. He’s been the big cat man for 14 years and works closely with two 18-year-old Tigers named Solomon and Delilah, and a 9-month-old lion named Wendel.
The tigers are siblings who were born in captivity and came from a facility in east Texas, and Key has had them since they were less than two years old. The lion was a former exotic pet who was surrendered by its owner to another east Texas facility.
Key said being around the big cats is in some ways similar to being around humans.
“It’s a lot like going to work every day,” he said. “You see what kind of mood they’re in and go from there. I do different things to greet them every day and that tells me what kind of mood they’re in.”
But the big cats are still cats.
“My wife and I have house cats,” Key said, “and these are very similar – they’re just bigger.”
Like any cat, the big ones are not always as motivated as their human counterparts.
“Their daily schedule doesn’t always match up to ours,” Key said. “We know we have to be on at 5-o-clock, but they don’t always understand why we have to be on right then.”
Key said the tigers didn’t care for being idle for about 14 months due to COVID-19, and were glad to hit the road this year.
“They’re pros,” Key said. “They see the cages roll up in the spring and load right up. We have a beautiful home facility that they love, but they get bored there, too. Cats like to see things and watch activity, and that lengthy, unscheduled time we spent at home was a boring time for them.”
Conversely, being in the circus environment gives the cats the optical stimulation they crave.
“They get to watch activity and see things happening, and it’s very visually interesting,” Key said.
Wendel is following in the footsteps of Francis, who died in October of 2020 at age 18.
“That’s significantly old for a male lion,” Key said. “He loved the audience and loved performing. When he was in the tent and it was time to go, he would just light up.”
The tigers have a different viewpoint of performing, Key said.
“They could take it or leave it,” he said. “But they love the routine and seeing the activity – they like being part of that. And they love the interaction with the staff and me.”
The C&M big cat compound in Hugo features various enclosures and a “cat barn” complete with heating and air conditioning.
“They love traveling,” Key said, “but kind of like us, they love coming home, too.”
About six months after Key began training with the two tigers, something happened that forever changed the way the trio interacted.
“Before that, they would get on their chairs for practice and look at me kind of weird,” Key said. “But about six months in, they got on their seats and there was this moment of recognition like they looked up and said, ‘oh hey, it’s you. How are the kids? How’s everything going at home?’
“It was like the scales fell away and there was this real understanding, like ‘OK, let’s do this again.’ It was a changing point in our whole relationship. Now there’s head butts and nose kisses, and they treat me like one of their tribe and like we’re in this together.”
While the other acts in the show are virtually the same every time, the big cat act varies. Key said that’s based on the nature of the beast, so to speak.
“I take what they give me,” he said. “We’re not doing chairs and whips out here like the old days; I’m trying to show my relationship with them and let the public see their personalities. There’s definitely a lot of improvising involved; they’re doing the same things each time, but they don’t always do it the way I expect.”