The Lion Tamer


George K The Lion Tamer

George Kirkpatrick, Animal Trainer and World Traveler....

On a quiet street in Yachats George Kirkpatrick leans back in his easy chair and looks at the small stream running through his yard.

It's a tranquil scene, light years away from the life he led as a wild animal park and zoo worker before becoming a circus animal trainer and world traveler. His life has now come full circle bringing him back to the place he visited as a child with his parents. His eyes twinkle as he begins his tale.

I got interested in big cats and other exotic animals the early seventies when I lived Washington State. I belonged to The Long Island Ocelot Club and The Alliance to Conserve Exotic Cats. These organizations have two major goals; to prevent the sale of exotic pets to the unknowledgeable and to inform pet owners and the public about the care of exotic pets.

My interest continued and I was fortunate enough to live near Morgan Berry, an animal importer-exporter, and his partner Eloise Berchtold who had nine elephants. Berchtold was a circus lady who also had lions, tigers, leopards and bears. I worked for them and learned a lot. Incidentally Morgan donated the largest Asian male elephant he had to the Portland zoo and this was the start of the most prolific breeding program of elephants in the country.

That was the beginning of Kirkpatrick's career working with animals. In 1973 he got the care of his first heard of elephants, seven of them, at the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. He also worked with many other animals, including cats, lions, tigers and zebras in the park which had a five-acre-drive-through for both tigers and lions.

From there he went to work at Northwest Trek, a six hundred acre park in Eatonville Washington whose exhibited animals are native to the Pacific Northwest. He served as senior field keeper for two years.

From there is was on to San Diego's Wild Animal Park as assistant trainer of elephants before moving and becoming a trainer and supervisor of the pachyderm building at the Oklahoma City Zoo. He estimates that he's worked with a total of 130 elephants during his career.

After Oklahoma City Kirkpatrick went to work in Haines City, Florida for The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus World Park. It was there that he met Bonnie Bale a featured aerialist in the production. She also worked in the elephant act.

Bonnie is from one of the five oldest circus families in the world. Her family goes back 312 years in circus service. Her father Colonel E. Trevor Bale was brought to America in 1953 by John Ringling North and trained every animal possible to train. Bonnie was only seven days old when her family flew to Madison Square Garden with Ringling Brothers to do a show which she was in. Bonnie and Kirkpatrick went on to marry and traveled the country on the Blue Ringling Brothers train that crisscrossed America.

Then a call came from John Ascuaga's Nugget, the Reno Nevada area's favorite Hotel-Casino and the home of Bertha and Tina, two performing elephants. Bonnie and Kirkpatrick put some changes in at the Elephant Palace and worked to expand the production show for the two pachyderms.

They worked there for two years before heading back to Florida to do requested shows and there they received a call from Bonnie's brother, a circus daredevil living in Europe asking them to come over and work. They heeded the call and headed to France and Italy to work for Circo Americano'. One particular performance for that circus stands out in Kirkpatrick's memory. It was a special show at The Vatican for Pope John Paul and afterwards we had a brief audience with him. A very gracious man.

Then it was off to Germany to work for 'Circus Sarrasani' which toured throughout Europe. They also ventured to Africa to help Bonnie's father with some of his training and shows before eventually retuning home to Venice Florida and dates with 'The Clyde Betty Circus'.

Several years later health issues caused Kirkpatrick to stop working the hectic and highly physical life of a trainer in circus. He continued to work with animals but on a smaller scale and in 1993 decided to leave the animal business.

He returned home to Washington, while Bonnie stayed in the circus life as her family had for years.

After a period of time taking care of his family in Washington Kirkpatrick felt it was time for a change and wanted to return to the place he'd known as a child and relax and enjoy life. While in Washington he met Kathy who became his partner and she was ready to move also so about seven years ago they packed up their bags and setup housekeeping in Yachats.

Today Kirkpatrick stays involved with humane animal treatment issues, studies new techniques about working with animals, and is more than willing to share his knowledge with others. I suppose I'll always be thinking about animals since they were, and are, such a big part of my life and I'm thankful I got to experience what I did. It's been a very interesting life.

As he finishes his tale he closes the overflowing scrapbook on the kitchen table. It's funny, there are lots of good memories in here, he says with a smile, but life today is what I always wanted after I got done bouncing around the world.

A side note about George Kirkpatrick, he's an outstanding chef. He cooks with passion and takes advantage of his memories of different recipes from different parts of the world. Perhaps his most requested dish at this date is his 'Yugoslavian Gypsy Antipasto', a tasty reminder of his globe trotting days.

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