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Curt Eriksmoen, Published July 21 2013

Did you know? N.D. man trained big cats

Even though acts involving big cats are one of the biggest attractions at the circus, most bigtop enthusiasts can only name a few animal trainers.

North Dakota’s own Wade Burck is one of very few trainers who were American-born. He stressed love and kindness rather than intimidation and cruelty. He did not carry a large whip with him in the ring, and his training method was based on rewards. He was the first trainer to get 16 tigers to simultaneously obey his commands, and he became the only trainer to work almost exclusively with white tigers.

Wade Gardner Burck was born Sept. 16, 1954, in Jacksonville, Fla. When Wade was 9 months old, the family moved to Washburn, N.D., then later to Hillsboro, N.D.

Because the Burcks owned a large three-acre lot, Wade had the ability to raise many animals. He claimed he “had 14 horses, 32 goats, (and) a lot of chickens.”

After graduating from high school in 1971, Wade Burck knew what he wanted out of life – to care for animals. He traveled to Naples, Fla., and found employment as an “apprentice keeper” at the zoo.

Burck’s life took a major turn the next year when “a crusty old Texan named Lou Regan, came to the zoo to look at some tigers.” Regan took an interest in the teenager and learned that Burck spent much of his youth training horses. Regan said that Burck could transfer that into training other animals. He offered Burck $35 a week to work with him at the Shrine Circus as his “apprentice trainer.”

In the beginning, life with the circus was lonely for Burck as he was an outsider. Eventually, he met an 18-year-old aerialist named Margaret Duke, who was much more sociable.

In 1975, Regan told Burck that he had taught him everything he knew, and he was ready to be on his own. Now that he was a “full-fledged trainer,” Burck and Duke wed Sept. 11, 1975.

The most celebrated tiger trainer at the time was “the blond circus god,” Gunther Gebel Williams. Instead of developing his own persona, Burck began to emulate Williams. Soon, the other circus employees started to call him Gunther. This inspired Burck even more, and in 1977, he dyed his hair blond. He became a workaholic, obsessed with out-performing his role model.

Burck neglected his pregnant wife, devoting almost every waking hour to his tigers. This came to a head when Margaret went into labor and asked her husband to take her to the hospital. He replied, “Don’t bother me. ... You know where the (car) keys are. Go!”

Soon after the birth of their son Adam, the couple separated. They later tried reconciliation, resulting in the birth of Eric, but the marriage failed to work. The couple divorced after four years of marriage.

Burck soon stopped trying to be Williams, even allowing his hair to return to its natural brown color.

In 1979, Burck was joined by his younger brother Mike, who served as his assistant for the next several years.

In 1980, Wade Burck suffered a severe attack from an angry tiger. During a performance near Boston, two male tigers were fighting over a female. Burck tried to break up the fight by pulling on the tail of one of the tigers. The tiger turned around and grabbed him by the face, breaking his jaw. Burck managed to break free, but the tiger bit him on the shoulder, breaking his collarbone, and started dragging him around.

Mike managed to slide a stick through the tiger’s jaw and break its grip on Burck.

Burck later established his own unique act by using almost all white tigers. One of the people who noticed this was Irvin Feld, who owned Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He hired Burck, who built a reputation as an outstanding trainer and was featured in many national publications.

Burck no longer performs but continues to train tigers. His son Adam now trains tigers and performs with the Shrine Circus.