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HANGING AROUND WITH THE BIG CATS UNDER THE BIG TOP

She has them eating out of her hand, this soft-spoken woman who looks like she should be gliding down a catwalk rather than chatting up tigers.

Yet at 24, Sara Houcke is a Tiger Whisperer, the big top's big star, sweet-talking her Bengals in any one of four languages mastered during her global life.

"It's not that I haven't tried everything else," Houcke said Tuesday during the circus load-in at HSBC Arena. "I have walked the wire. I've done flying trapeze, acrobatics. I wasn't good enough. It never worked out. The only thing that I was good at was working with the animals, so that's what I should stick with."

Outside the arena, Houcke grips a leash that keeps Nedda, a 50-pound tiger toddler, from becoming too frisky with a visitor. At 4 1/2 months, Nedda gains about five pounds a week, has a taste for red meat and raw chicken and is a paw-ful for her surrogate mother.

"They don't get sick that often," Houcke said, flashing a Claudia Schiffer smile. "They sometimes have stomachaches. "You can tell by the way they move. They burp. It's like your pet dog at home. It's the same thing with the cats and me."

Maybe Houcke would never have made it as a circus tumbler, her 5-foot-10 frame not conducive to pretzel-like twists. So what led a 2-year-old to make her professional debut as a clown in Switzerland's Circus Knie?

It's all in the genes.

"The skills are something passed down from family to family," explained Jenifer Maninger, regional public relations director for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "Every once in a while you will find a performer who just became interested in gymnastics when they were younger and pursued training, but usually the talent is passed down through six or seven generations."

Houcke represents the seventh generation of a family that claims 200 years in the circus business. The daughter of an animal trainer and professional dancer, she is the fifth generation to work with animals.

For almost two years, Houcke has worked with the big cats, concentrating on her relationship with each of the seven quarter-ton Bengal tigers she leads into center ring. The act - lasting seven minutes - lacks the adversarial condition that for years had dominated many lion and tiger acts.

Watching this Tiger Whisperer perform - a beauty and seven beasts - an observer can't help but notice a kinder, gentler form of trainer, one who "whuffles," or purrs to her animals. Tricks are based on natural behavior, she insists: rolling over, standing up, sitting down. No hoops to jump through. Nothing shoved in their mouths.

To be sure, Houcke approaches her tigers only when invited, that is, only when they return her "whuffle" with their own soft and steady purr. It is not uncommon to have one tiger remain on his pedestal while the others join Houcke in the center of the ring. That Bengal, Houcke said, is simply not in the mood to perform.

"It's amazing that every day I can go in and approach the cats and have the relationship I have with them," she said. "I can pet them. I can be face to face with them. I can give them meat out of my hand instead of the tip of the stick like people usually do. The whole act is more about the relationship between me and the cats.

"They know my scent. They know my voice," she noted. "As soon as I walk up and call them, they'll know that it is me coming. I don't usually, around the cats, put perfume on. I don't think that they would appreciate the smelling of perfume."

Houcke speaks with an accent that could best be described as European, a blend of French and German with a hint of Brit. She's partial to the music of Macy Gray and Mary J. Blige, likes clubbing in the cities she visits and spoils herself by shopping.

Like a snail, Houcke carries her home with her, traveling the circus route in her 40-foot recreational vehicle that is decorated with photos of family, pet cocker spaniel, and of course, her big cats.

There's Jasmine, Tibet, Assam, Apollo and Gandhi, each beast with his own temperament, each holding a place in their trainer's heart.

"You need to love what you're doing here, otherwise you couldn't be doing it," she explained. "I wouldn't be standing out here in the rain, cleaning up tiger poo, traveling from city to city if I didn't."

Well stated, but beyond the special relationship with some big furry friends - one that so far has been injury-free - there is no denying the danger Houcke faces every time she enters the ring. The young woman knows the risk, and had been told that - repeatedly - by the late Gunther Gabel-Williams, the legendary tiger tamer who died last summer after 30 years with the circus.

"Sometimes I see them outside, and how ferocious they can be and how aggressive and mean," Houcke said. "And then I step in there and I can calm them down sometimes just by talking to them.

"Wow, I can't believe I'm doing this."

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