Gunther Gebel-Williams

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Gunther Gebel, wild-animal trainer: born Schweidnitz, Germany 12 September 1934; married 1960 Jeannette Williams (marriage dissolved 1967), 1968 Sigrid Fuls (née Neuberger; one son); died Venice, Florida 19 July 2001.

Gunther Gebel-Williams was the most celebrated circus animal trainer of all time.

Although he retired officially in 1990, Gebel-Williams never gave up the spotlight. For 21 years he had been the headline attraction of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth", and he was back in the limelight in 1995 as a special guest star in New York for the show's 125th anniversary, when he was invested with the title of Vice-President, Animal Care.

Gebel-Williams, the master and friend of species from horses to giraffes, tigers, lions, leopards and pumas to elephants, became known as "American's 20th-Century Circus Hero". His success was hard-won, however, and his stamina almost superhuman. He appeared up to three or four times a day with two groups of wild animals, three rings full of elephants, horses and other animals, whilst at the same time supervising the care and well-being of the entire Ringling menagerie, and training new acts on the road in tours lasting up to 48 weeks.

When Gebel-Williams's autobiography Untamed was published in 1991, Richard Houck, the show's veterinarian, wrote of him:

My job was made easier by the special attention he gave to his animals. I think his good judgement about their health was the result of knowing them so well, and possessing the ability to recognise subtle behaviour changes. Gunther's ability to tune in to the behaviour of the different species enabled him to train many types of animals. This is extraordinary because most animal trainers must concentrate only on one species to become proficient.

The hard work and glamour of the circus contrasted strongly with Gebel-Williams's early days of childhood poverty and wartime strife. He was born Gunther Gebel in 1934, in the small town of Schweidnitz, in the part of Germany that was known as Silesia and is now part of Poland.

His father, Max Gebel, was a carpenter who built sets for the local theatre, before becoming its technical director. Max Gebel was an alcoholic and although he was never physically abusive to his son Gunther or daughter Rita, his treatment of the children was brutal in other ways.

Gunther's father disappeared from his life after he went into the Army during the Second World War and they eventually lost all contact. His mother Elfriede was a seamstress. Gunther never finished school and the only formal education he had was during the war when he attended the Pestalozzi School for four years. He said later: "I never wanted to be a German and what happened during the war has bothered me all my life. I could not do anything to stop the atrocities, but my parents and other adults did nothing."

As the Russian front advanced, Gunther, his mother and sister fled west to what was to become East Germany, finding refuge in Zwickau, which the Russians then also invaded. The family returned to Schweidnitz in 1945 and Elfriede earned a living mending and tailoring uniforms for the Russian soldiers. Gunther's first unpaid job was tending the Russian horses, and later he got a job on a farm controlled by the Russian military.

Eventually the family went to live in Cologne, where his mother gave Gunther the thrill of his life – taking him to see a circus for the first time: as they left the Circus Williams grounds after the performance, he noticed a "Help Wanted" sign, stating that the circus was looking for a dressmaker. Elfriede was not keen, but he insisted so strongly that she enquired about the job and accepted it. Gunther was put to work as an usher two days before his 13th birthday.

His mother left the circus after only two or three weeks but signed an employment contract with the circus owners, Harry Williams and his wife, the former Carola Althoff, virtually giving Gunther Gebel away. Harry Williams encouraged him to work with the animals.

In December 1950 he accompanied Williams to London to appear in a spectacular Roman chariot racing sequence in Tom Arnold's Christmas Circus at Harringay Arena. Williams, attempting to show a member of the company how he wanted the racing to be done, was fatally injured in an accident. Gebel said: "I felt as if I had lost the only father I ever knew."

The Williams Circus contingent returned to Germany and Gebel continued to appear in the chariot racing number until the end of the season but that summer he too had an accident when the chariot he was driving turned over and he ended up in hospital for weeks. The chariot racing was eliminated from the circus, and Carola Williams suspended touring for a year.

Gebel spent the year with her brother, Franz Althoff, from whom he was to learn most about his greatest love in the animal kingdom, the elephant. When Circus Williams reopened, his loyalty to Carola Williams led to him becoming virtually an adopted son, indispensable as a manager and animal trainer, and in 1960 he married Carola's daughter, Jeannette, taking the name Gunther Gebel-Williams. Although they divorced in 1967, he kept the name.

In 1968, when Irvin Feld decided to start a second touring unit of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in America, not only did the Circus Williams outfit interest him, but so did its star attraction, Gebel-Williams. Feld declared "I'm going to Europe and I'm not coming back until I get him." It cost Feld $2m, but he got his way by taking the Circus Williams lock, stock and barrel to America.

On 15 November 1968, the Atlantic Saga sailed into New York harbour, carrying Gunther Gebel-Williams, his second wife Sigrid and more than 30 performers and staff of Circus Williams, along with nine tigers, 38 horses, and a dozen elephants. In January the following year, Gunther made his American début in Venice, Florida, the home town of the circus.

Under Feld's guidance, Gebler-Williams became the dazzlingly costumed, bleached-blond sex symbol of the circus. At one time he worked with horses in the centre ring, with both his current and former wives appearing in the end rings handling horses. He taught tigers to ride on elephants, and followed that with a leopard on an elephant and two lions on one elephant.

He quickly earned the adoration of the American circus-going public and was named "Outstanding Circus Performer of the Year" by the American Guild of Variety Artists in 1973. In 1977 he made an American Express advertisement, with a leopard draped round his shoulders, which captured the public imagination. He was labelled the "Caesar of the Circus", made a guest appearance on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson and starred in his own CBS-TV special, Lord of the Ring.

Time and again he made headlines and circus history. His tiger act became a legendary attraction, and his mixed group of leopards, panthers and cougars is unequalled in the annals of the circus. He could control the movements of 20 or more fully grown elephants in the three rings and on the hippodrome track of the circus, simply with voice control.

He was steadily built into an icon, yet he remained all his life a simple, natural and modest performer, whose great love was for his animals. "Training," he said, "is a beautiful thing, I think. When an animal's brain power is enhanced, life becomes more natural, easier, more pleasant. To get inside the head of an animal, and communicate, that is wonderful."

Gebel-Williams displayed none of the characteristics of the popular image of a wild animal trainer, replacing the macho image with a boyish grin and casual bravado. Although his body bore the scars of 500 claw-marks, obtained when breaking up scraps between his charges, Gunther was never once during his career attacked directly by one of his wild animals.

D. Nevil