Big cats steal show

Natasha jumps between platforms over handler Robert Mullen of Amazing Rainforest Experience on Wednesday at the Curry County Fair. Natasha is the oldest of three tigers that perform in the show. CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Her 350-pound frame pounces from perch to perch with ease. As she settles, she looks around for her trainer, craning her neck toward him so her chin can be scratched.

A 6-year-old Bengal tiger, Natasha lives for attention, according to Christy Mullen of Amazing Rainforest Experience. It’s all about positive reinforcement, audience participation and tactile attention — petting, scratching, rubbing, she said.

“If a 500-pound animal doesn’t want to do something, it’s not going to do it,” the 24-year-old trainer said.

One of 26 trained animals, Natasha and her team put on an Asian fairy tale show for audiences across the country, Mullen said. Natasha’s partner, 2-year-old Jai, a male Bengal tiger, alternates shows with her.

At the Curry County fair for the first time, the group performs three shows a day, each time the animals taking turns so they don’t get exhausted, Mullen said. “They got a better deal than I do. We do three a day; they do one.”

All of the animals that travel with the group are handled and perform, she said — monkeys, a lemur, a cougar, two tigers, birds, a horse, even an arctic fox, all there to entertain and inform.

“We try to do a little bit of education while we entertain (but) we don’t stand here and preach,” she said.

“Kids are just awesome to teach,” she said, emphasizing lessons are driven home better with the presence of live animals.

Playing the role of a princess, Mullen narrates each show from horseback while her husband, Robert Mullen, 40, works with the animals.

Most of the animals are from Asia, she said, and many are endangered. An Asian fishing cat, part of the repertoire, is the only of its kind with a traveling show in the United States, she said.

Each animal has its own personality, she said. “They’re like kids.”
Working with the animal show for the last four years, Mullen said she has always wanted to work as a trainer, and obtained a degree in animal biology. She does a lot of the veterinary work for the troupe, she said. Her husband has 15 years experience in the field and has learned much of what he knows on the job, she said.

Zacharey Ornelas, 7, was helping his grandmother direct traffic at the fairgrounds. He said he wants to see the tigers “’cause they’re mean.” Twisting his umbrella in his hands, he said he hoped it didn’t rain.

The animals watched intently from their cages Wednesday as carnival workers prepared rides for the evening, the cougar eyeing a climbing wall brought erect like a cat watches a moth.

With dark storm clouds overhead, Robert Mullen said “the radar’s not looking real good.” While the animals love the rain, he explained, the electrical light and sound equipment doesn’t.

Even when it rains, the show tries to go on, he explained. “It has to be a downpour for us to stop.”