This article first appeared in the Feline Conservation Federation newsletter following the FCF convention in Las Vegas.
For many of us, the highlight of this year’s convention was Rick Thomas. Rick’s show was a synergistic blend of magic, dance, humor, and most importantly, TIGERS! The production served as a perfect introduction to the charismatic entertainer, who quickly won members over with his enjoyable and inspiring performance, engaging personality, and obvious dedication to his tigers.
One of my favorite illusions involved the problem raised when Rick is informed that flying his tigers to Japan will cost an enormous sum. He walks his full-grown tiger Morpheus into a transport crate labeled “Wild Animal” and slaps on additional placard reading “Extremely.” Rick proceeds to fold the crate down to a fraction of its original size and replace the sign. When he’s done, the shrunken crate reads “Extremely Cute Animal.” The magician opens the door to the “Extremely Cute Animal” cage and produces an adorable white tiger cub. The cub was completely at ease on stage and refused to leave with the assistant handler, but readily complied with Rick’s coaxing and trotted off at his side.
For those who didn’t get the opportunity to watch Rick’s show, he has a DVD for sale on his web site www.rickthomas.com that shows many of his illusions as well as some of his television appearances and other interesting material.
The only thing I found initially disappointing was the minimal time the tigers actually spent on stage. However, after hearing Rick speak about the reasons he utilizes the tigers less that he could, I emerged with a profound respect for his having made a conscious decision to avoid exploiting his cats, and not making them the basis of his show and his success. Rick sets an example that anyone who performs with animals would do well to follow.
Rick was the first speaker at this year’s convention, and I think it’s fair to say he stole the show. When he realized he had exceeded his scheduled time, we didn’t let him even think of stopping!
Without a doubt the most touching moment of the convention was hearing Rick choke up as he described meeting the first tiger he bought for his show. Recounting the impact of being introduced to the magnificent 2-year-old tiger brought tears to his eyes, causing many of us to mist up in turn as we recalled the life-changing impact of our own first encounters with wild cats. There is truly no way to describe to an “outsider” the instant mark they can make on our souls and in our hearts, and at that moment I believe Rick earned the love and respect of everyone in the room.
Rick’s concern for the comfort and well-being for his tigers led him to design a state-of the-art custom transport trailer. It incorporates innovations such as sliding doors cage doors incorporating stoppers that prevent tails from getting slammed when a door needs to be closed quickly, horizontal bars to prevent the bruising and abrasion that vertical bars can cause, and of course air conditioning throughout. When it’s time for them to enter the theatre, Rick backs the trailer up to the air-conditioned backstage area so that the tigers aren’t exposed to the temperature shock of moving from their cool trailer to the roasting heat of a Las Vegas summer. At home the tigers, all raised in Rick’s house, enjoy such luxuries as $250,000 swimming pool.
Respecting the cats and ensuring that his show does not exploit the creatures he shares his life with is central to Rick’s performances. He has consciously avoided making the tigers the central focus of his show, ensuring that his performance, not that of the tigers drives his success and reputation. He wants to earn his own fame, not be carried to it on the backs of his tigers. He says that if he were ever forced to stop using big cats in his act, he would still have a successful career and the tigers would have a home with him for life.
When asked if the Sigfreid and Roy incident had caused him to rethink his own show, Rick explained that his performance had been designed from the beginning with safety in mind. His tigers spend relatively little time outside their cages while on stage, and when they are out they are given a specific task to focus on, usually going from one cage to another. The cats aren’t given the opportunity to become bored and let their minds wander to more dangerous activities. And once the tigers emerge, Rick says he ceases to be a magician and becomes an animal handler, focusing on the tigers and ensuring that he devotes his full attention to the safe handling on the animal while it’s on stage. Rick also feels that he gains an extra margin of safety by respecting the natural behaviors of his tigers and not asking them to perform unnatural or stressful behaviors, saying, “you will never see Rick Thomas jump a tiger through a ring of fire.”
The likable performer hasn’t let success transform him into a spoiled celebrity. He drives his tigers to every show himself, and personally feeds and cleans up after his cats, believing that he doesn’t have the right to appear on stage with them unless he puts in the time and effort to work with and bond to them every day behind the scenes. After the show he emerges to speak with his fans, sign autographs, and let people take their picture with him. Unlike many Vegas performers, he doesn’t charge people for the chance to have a photo taken with him, and he was just as happy to sign programs as the merchandise for sale at his table.
Appearing for his fans hasn’t been a matter of simply accepting praise from admirers, either. People who have a problem with his use of tigers in the show seize the opportunity to take Rick to task. He told FCF members about a woman who berated him for keeping his tigers in tiny cages, assuming that they lived in the boxes they appear on stage in.
While Rick says he has been fortunate in that his show has never been formally protested by animal rights activists, he has had to deal with some angry and misinformed show-goers. He told us of one time a spectator shouted “Free the tigers!” during a performance, causing Rick to bring the show to a halt for five minutes while he educated the audience.
The people who attended his show that day left with an understanding of how dangerous life in the wild actually is for the critically endangered tiger, which is considered a threat to humans in its natural habitat and whose carcass can sell for $10,000. As he said, “I love my tigers. Why would I turn them loose in the wild to die?” Rick explained to the audience how captive breeding may be the only hope for these magnificent creatures, and he’s proud to be a responsible part of that.
And as any experienced handler knows, some animal lovers just seem to have a death wish. Rick related one hair-raising incident that took place as he was walking one of his tigers. A man approached and demanded to pet the tiger. Rick declined and kept walking, but the man followed, insisting “Let me pet the tiger.” Finally the flaming idiot person ran up to the tiger and was forcibly removed by a couple of Rick’s assistants. I myself wouldn’t mind having a couple of “assistants” around next time some intellectually challenged individual decides to insist that he’s immune to animal teeth!
Rick says he hasn’t been active in legislative matters. Although residing in Nevada, he designed his facility to meet California standards and relaxed, knowing that he had met the strictest standards in the country. An interesting side note: through an entirely unrelated chain of events (no, Rick, we aren’t stalking you!) one of our members acquired Rick’s approved California permit application. Through his recent contact with the FCF, he has become more aware of the threats and even asked Lynn Culver to keep him informed as he may work with us on legislative threats.
Rick set an excellent example for us in the way he addressed practices and organizations he disagrees with, making his points firmly but without attacking anyone. He spoke out against the practice of magicians renting tigers so that they can “look cool on stage,” believing you must earn the right to appear with the tiger by putting in time and effort with the animal. He managed to do so in a way that acknowledged that some of our members may be involved in this type of activity (we aren’t, are we?) and that he didn’t want to attack them, he simply wanted express why he felt the practice was wrong.
He’s also a superb showman, and watching him perform and speak holds many lessons for our members. We all need to become more aware of the impressions we make on people, and how to get our point across in a likable and even entertaining manner rather than a hostile one. As Rick showed us, sincerity and passion are not mutually exclusive of showmanship and skilled presentation.
Please join me in a warm welcome to our newest FCF member, Rick Thomas!