There will be lots of lion around at the 195th Jefferson County Fair, Tuesday through July 15 in Watertown.
One of the daily acts, free with fair admission, is the Big Cat Encounter show.
The animals in the show come from the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary of Sarasota, Fla., operated by the Rosaire family.
The trainer of the lions and tigers is Clayton Rosaire, a ninth-generation descendant of one of England's premier animal-handling families. The family got its start in the U.S. when Derrick Rosaire Sr. developed a fan base in this country in 1960 when he performed on CBS's “The Ed Sullivan Show” with Tony the Wonder Horse.
He went on to perform on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and on the White House lawn for President Nixon. He later trained animals like Gentle Ben the Bear, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion and Judy, the chimpanzee in the television show “Daktari.” He died in 2005 at age 89.
Clayton Rosaire, 32, Derrick's grandson and the first generation of the Rosaires born in the U.S., began training big cats when he was 17. He said he was the youngest person he knows of to train such animals.
He calls Big Cat Encounter “edutainment.”
“People are going to get a chance to get up close and personal and learn a little bit more about these animals and get to see what they're really like, how they all have their own personalities and how intelligent they really are,” he said last week before a show in the Meadowlands, N.J.
He said the actions performed by the cats in the show are naturally done by them in the wild.
“We taught them to do it in a sequence,” Mr. Rosaire said.
On average, he said, there are “six or seven” big cats in the show, including Conan, “one of the largest performing tigers in the world.”
“He's over 700 pounds,” Mr. Rosaire said.
Other cats include two white tigers, Handsome, an African lion, and a liger, an animal that is half tiger and half lion. Mr. Rosaire also has a “golden tabby.”
“He's the second-rarest color of tiger in the world,” he said.
There will also be a cub that will not perform but will be on display.
The trainer said he never fears for his safety.
“This is what I've been trained to do for my entire life,” he said. “I do things with big cats that no one else in the world can do.”
But there is one thing he's not doing this year after objections by his family: putting his head in a lion's open mouth.
“I just have a way with my animals,” he said. “It's something you just have to see. You can't explain how a large meat-eating predator loves me like I'm one of their own. It's like a shark loving a goldfish. It doesn't normally happen.”
All of his cats, Mr. Rosaire said, were gifts from private owners who couldn't keep them anymore for various reasons. The animals usually reside at his sanctuary. Mr. Rosaire takes some select cats on the road in the summers to help raise money for the sanctuary, where more than 40 big cats have been rescued.
“We only travel a few months out of the summer because I'm so busy at home,” Mr. Rosaire said.
Besides cats, Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary houses primates, bears, birds and tortoises.
Funds are raised on the road for the sanctuary by such things as selling T-shirts, posing with lions and tigers for photographs and giving people an opportunity to feed selected cats.
Mr. Rosaire has a ready response to critics who may believe that such a traveling life for the big cats equals animal abuse.
“It is a proven fact that these animals love to travel and they love going out and performing,” he said.
“Everyone is welcome to their own opinions, but you should do something about it,” Mr. Rosaire said. “You should stand up for what you believe in. If you say you love animals, then you should respect them and do everything in your power to help save them and continue the species.”
Many animals rights activists, he said, do not do that.
“They believe all of these animals are better off dead,” he said.
His reserve, Mr. Rosaire said, has a large pool, and lots of space where they can “run and play.”
“Our animals are very, very lucky,” he said.
And the fair, he said, is a great place to see them.
“It's wonderful place to spend time with your family,” he said. “Where else can you go and find something for everybody?”