The Lion Cage Is Empty: Gunther Gebel-Williams Passes Away

By Buck Wolf

July 17, 2001 — You would think it'd be easy to avoid elephant poo on the mean streets of New York. I beg to differ.

It was April 1989, and there I was with the golden god of the circus, the biggest star of "The Greatest Show on Earth" — legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Willliams.

What does it take to thrill ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages? This hulking blonde man in a spangled vest would wave his hand and magically coax a snarling, 500-pound Bengal tiger to leap on to the back of an elephant.

I was a cub reporter for Pacifica Radio back then, there to report on Gebel-Williams preparing for his last shows at New York's Madison Square Garden — where he had appeared more times than Bruce Springsteen or any other entertainer.

There was a tradition when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to New York. The animals would arrive by train, then paraded from Queens to Manhattan, through the Midtown Tunnel.

I was a 24-year-old kid, with a microphone in one hand, rushing to interview a circus superstar.

I immediately recognized him from the circus posters and the American Express commercial with a leopard draped over his shoulders, asking in a thick German accent, "Do you know me?"

Then, abruptly, I suffered my first professional lesson in abject humility. I was brought to my knees by a giant mound of elephant dung.

"I don't think you need to ask any questions," Gebel-Williams said to me, smirking. "You've had your lesson in circus life."

It was time for me to recover. "I bet you see that all the time," I said. "It's an occupational hazard for you, I suppose."

"No," he said, signaling that chitchat time was over. It was time to go, and he never really did like doing interviews. Dozens of workers lined up the elephants, llamas and other beasts. He was the wild kingdom's traffic cop.

He grabbed one elephant by the collar. The handlers and other creatures fell into line. It was part routine, part magic. Gunther Gebel-Willliams had a parade of animals at his command.