Tabayara “Taba” Maluenda is the first Latino to be the head animal trainer at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus since the circus was founded in 1907. Today, he is known as the greatest tiger trainer of our time.
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For most people, it's hard enough to train a cat to stay off the furniture.
But don't tell that to Tabayara “Taba” Maluenda - the man who can make twelve 520-pound tigers dance in sync, jump through fire, and kiss his cheek.
As the head animal trainer for the most famous circus in the world, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Taba orchestrates a cast of Bengal and White Tigers, Elephants, and Horses.
Since the circus was founded in 1907, he is the first Latino to ever reach the esteemed position and is known as the greatest tiger trainer of our time.
“I think what I love most about the circus is that the circus is real, it’s pure, it’s talent, and it’s live,” Taba said.
Taba believes that circus performers should be held in the same, if not higher, esteem as movie actors and singers – especially singers – who have to perform to live audiences.
Although, not even a hard metal rocker can boast 80 to 90 scars from live performances like Taba can.
Yet for him, it’s just part of the job.
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“I have a connection because I live with the animals everyday,” he said. “To get to know their personalities, who is more aggressive, who isn’t, it’s important to be with them side by side.”
Each day, Taba puts in an average of 14 hours of work. Preparing for shows Wednesday thru Sunday and traveling on off days, Taba wakes up at 7:30 in the morning to insure all of the animals are fed, cleaned, and worked out before the start of a show. Nights can sometimes be difficult as bad weather and storms can keep the animals, and by default Taba, awake.
But the work is all out of love for his companions who, like their trainer, have some eclectic names. Pincesa, India, Dragon, Blanca, and Rambo are just some of the 15 tigers he looks out for. He also boasts a lineup of seven elephants like Asia and Tanka and 15 horses like Ali, Tyson, and Cinto.
Asked if he had a favorite tiger?
“Do you have children?” he replied, as if picking a favorite would be akin to picking a favorite son.
Taba speaks of the circus with an adrenaline-induced enthusiasm. Who can blame him? The circus is in his DNA.
Born into a family of six generations of acrobats, jugglers, and high wire walkers on his mother’s side, the life of the circus was all but destined for him. Always a talented gymnast working multiple circus jobs, Taba became known for his skill in the flying trapeze act.
Living in a poor family in Chile, the 13-year-old’s circus work came more out of necessity after his parents separated forcing him to turn into a breadwinner and the man of his household.
Taba’s life was changed when he saw a television program from his TV set that featured the renowned Ringling Bros. and Barnum &Bailey animal trainer, Gunther Gebel-Williams.
Gunther would serve as Taba’s life idol. He wanted to become him, and at the age of 15 he was given the chance of a lifetime.
Circo Hermanos Gasca, a traveling circus in South America, gave him an opportunity to train with animals. Due to an animal trainer running late for a show, Taba was thrown into his first show with a lion, leopards, and tigers. The Gazca organization had allowed a young Taba to watch and be mentored by others in the circus, and he seized the opportunity to participate.
“I remember the first time I stepped into the cage with the animals more than I remember the first time I kissed a woman, the first time I was called a man,” Taba explained.
Taba then went on to tour South America for 18 years with the Gazca organization.
While touring, he was discovered by Ringling Bros. circus and given the esteemed position of head animal trainer.
“It’s something you can’t believe. Incredible. Something you could write books and movies about,” he said. “To have reached the same position as my idol – it’s not even a dream because there are times in which a dream stays a dream.”
His passion for the circus is palpable.
"If I were born again," Taba said, "I would again work with the circus and again as an animal trainer. Whatever I have in my life - my career, my family and my family's name - it comes from working in the circus."
The circus transformed his life, and just like the generations before him it has become a family tradition.
Taba met the love of his life, Lucenir “Lu” Viera de Souza, when he performed in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Compared to the circus driven tiger trainer, Lu was a normal girl who wanted to be a teacher, but that was before meeting Taba. She’s told newspapers her relationship is “storybook”.
Lu joined the circus as an aerialist and now often works with the horses and elephants, side by side with her husband.
Their 14-year-old daughter, Tabatha, knows three languages and when she isn’t being homeschooled in train cars in the Ringling Bros. traveling school, continues to practice her career as an aerialist.
As for Taba’s 4-year-old son, appropriately named Gunther, there is no pressure for him to be a part of the circus industry.
“If they want to be circus artists great, if they want to study and have another profession great, but the only thing I ask is that whatever the profession, they do it with dignity and with drive, 100 percent,” he said.
While Taba doesn’t consider himself an American, he is extremely proud of a country that has given him such a wonderful opportunity to entertain and provide for his children.
“If I had to fight for this country I would,” he said. “Because this country has given me and my family a better way of life and for that I am thankful.”
You can follow Bryan Llenas on Twitter @Bryan_Llenas.