The Greatest Animal Trainer of all Time
Gunther Gebel-Williams, the world's most famous lion tamer, will be remembered forever for his unique, captivating and extravagant performances. In his lifetime, he entertained over 200 million people, live and in person, an unbeatable record. He changed the face of animal training, abandoning the traditional lion tamer tools of the trade (whip, chair and pistol) opting instead for gentler methods of persuasion. He was dedicated to his animals, often preferring their company to that of humans, and will be remembered in posterity for his gentle charm rather than the machismo of his act.
Born Gunther Gebel in Schweidnitz, Germany, on September 12th, 1934, he was essentially abandoned by his mother into the care of the Williams' Circus at the age of 12. His mother had been hired to work as a wardrobe assistant and Gunther began to work as an usher. Shortly thereafter, however, his mother left and he was taken in by Henry and Carola Williams, the owners, who raised him as their own son.
His adoptive father encouraged him to work with the animals and he began his career by learning how to ride horses bareback. He quickly discovered that he had a natural talent and patience for taming animals. He became a self taught animal behaviorist.
He was enthralled with the big cats. He admired the tigers, saying he was taken with their beauty, wildness, intelligence, pride and dignity. Leopards, he thought, were as beautiful as they were troublesome, but he enjoyed being near them. With the lions he marveled at their extraordinary social organization.
He worked with the animals as much as he was able to and finally began performing in 1950. His special approach to animals and his original performances soon got him a lot of attention. Within a few years he became all the rage in the European circus world. In 1952, when Henry Williams died, Carola gave him the job of running the circus. She also gave 18-year old Gunther the family name as a sign of affection.
When Irven Feld, then owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, saw Gebel-Williams perform, he wanted him in The Greatest Show on Earth. Gunther, however, was too dedicated to his adopted family to leave the Williams' circus. Determined as hell, Feld bought the entire circus for 2 million dollars just to acquire the talented Gebel-Williams.
Gunther Gebel-Williams made his American debut on January 6, 1969, in the world premiere of the 99th Edition of The Greatest Show On Earth at the circus' Winter Quarters in Venice, Florida.
He worked with the circus until 1990, and in that time he never missed a single one of his 12 000 performances. In 1973 he was named Outstanding Circus Performer of the Year by the American Guild of Variety Artists and in 1977 he became the first circus performer to star in a television special. Lord of the Rings, hosted by Tony Curtis, was followed by another special in 1981, called My Father, The Circus King, which was shot from the perspective of his son. Gebel-Williams also made numerous appearances on numerous national television shows, including Late Night with Johnny Carson, to which he brought along one of his elephants.
His most famous appearance, however, was in an American Express commercial in which he co-stars with his favorite leopard, Kenny. The animal appears draped around Gebel-Williams shoulders, a famous part of his show.
Despite Gebel-Williams' excellent handling techniques, like others in the trade, he was often wounded by his charges. Shortly after Kenny's death, he attempted the above trick with another leopard, 150 lb Zorro who became nervous and sank his teeth into his trainer's skull. Gebel-Williams was also hit in the face many times and his lips were covered in scars. His teeth and many of their replacements were knocked out. It is reported, however, that he never retaliated with violence on any of his animals.
In his lifetime, Gebel-Williams worked with lions, tigers, lhamas, elephants, leopards, panthers, a giraffe and moutain goats. He was quoted as saying that he could tame any animal but one: the household cat.
In the later years of his career, with changing attitudes towards animal rights, Gebel-Williams often came under attack by activists and was accused of animal cruelty and exploitation. He did not take these comments seriously, however, since he felt that his animals formed a big family and loved him as he loved them. "I was their father and they were my children," he wrote in his autobiography, Tamed. When he retired from performing, he took on the role of vice president for the welfare of animals with the circus.
Throughout his illustrious career, Gunther not only earned the respect and applause of circus fans and audiences everywhere, he captured the imagination of the American public with his dashing style and daring performances. But perhaps more importantly, Gunther demonstrated to all that humans and animals could work, live and thrive together in harmony and should respect one another, thus forever banishing the outdated notion of "man versus beast." Because of Gunther Gebel-Williams the American circus has changed forever, and we have all learned more about the beauty, majesty and sheer splendor of the world's most exotic creatures.
Gunther Gebel Williams final tour broke box office records at every venue. At the final stage of the tour, in Pittsburgh, PA, he handed over his boots to his son. He did, however, make another 10-city tour in 1994, on which the CBS special, The Return of Gunther Gebel-Williams was based. The last time he stepped into the ring was to fill in for his son in 1998, when the younger Williams flew to Florida to be present for the birth of his first child.
In 1995, Gunther Gebel-Williams was honored at Madison Square Gardens for giving the most performances in the famous arena. In 1999, he became inducted to the International Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana. As a special honour to the legendary performer, the committee only allowed one induction that year since they felt it would be unfair for him to share the spotlight. As if anyone stood a chance of stealing it from.
Gunther Gebel-Williams, lion tamer extraordinaire, died on July 20, 2001 at his home in Venice, Florida. He was 66 years old.
A large collection of photos can be found at the special commemorative site at:
Just as a side note, I personally disagree and dislike the use of animals in circus acts and strongly believe that animals shouldn't be used for entertainment purposes. However, when I read that a group of animal rights activists protested at this man's funeral, I was appalled. That is just plain rude.