Tabayara Maluenda got his start in the circus as an acrobat at age 13.
But whenever he wasn't performing, the sixth generation circus performer could be found hanging around the animals.
"I didn't play inside the big tent, I played with the animals," Maluenda said during a telephone interview from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Tabayara Maluenda gives one of the tigers in his act a kiss during Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Built to Amaze.”
The owner of the circus noticed and told the boy he could help with the animals if he wanted. It started a career path the continues as an animal trainer with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Over the years, Maluenda has worked with elephants, zebras, horse and tigers, and after decades with other traveling circuses, he got the opportunity to succeed his idol, legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams with the circus that bills itself as the "Greatest Show on Earth."
Maluenda will display his skills with tigers and elephants when Ringling's "Built to Amaze" comes to the Covelli Centre for eight performances.
He compared his job to a school teacher, who has to take a different approach with each student to bring out his or her best.
When You Go
WHAT: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus - "Built to Amaze!"
WHEN: 3 and 7 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
WHERE: Covelli Centre, 229 E. Front St., Youngstown
HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $14 to $70.
"If you have 40 children, everyone is smart, but some need more attention, some need more discipline to do the job," he said. "The elephant is very easy to train. The tiger is more dangerous. Everybody is a different situation."
Maluenda may work with an animal behind the scenes for a year or more before it ever makes an appearance in the center ring. And just as important as the animal's behavior is how the other animals in the act react to it.
"When you bring in a new tiger, you need to have them working together," he said. "Sometimes this tiger may like the new tiger, but one or two might not like it. It can be very, very dangerous."
And there are those animals whose personalities are not suited for performing in front of thousands of people multiple times a day. He said it is like trying to force a child to be an athlete.
"If you have a tiger with a very strong character, why do I want to put my life between me and this tiger?" Maluenda said. "We're doing the job together. You don't want any animal if you have to force it to do what you need it to do."
Joining Maluenda and his animal acts in "Built to Amaze" will be 110 performers and 95 exotic and domestic animals.
Andre McClain serves as ringmaster for a production that features the Tower Tumblers, a troupe of aerialists from the Ukraine, the King Charles Troupe, which mixes unicycle skills with basketball stunts; the Danguir Troupe, a high-wire act; and the clowns and other animal attractions associated with the show.
Maluenda' wife, Lucenir Viera de Souza, also performs with the circus as a living carousel presenter, and the couple is joined on the road by their two children, Tabitha and Gunther (who is named after his father's idol).
The father hopes one of his children becomes the seventh generation of the family to work in the circus, but he is taking the same attitude to being a parent as he does with being an animal trainer.
"Of course, I want to have seven generations, but if my daughter says tomorrow, 'I don't want to be a circus performer, I want another profession,' I will tell her, 'Your papa is behind you 100 percent. Whatever you want."'