Williamson resident Horst Merkl loves adventure, and his life story proves that.
You would not have imagined that a young man from Nuremberg, Germany, who spent his early education learning to become a baker, would find his way to the circus - and taming lions, tigers and other exotic and dangerous animals.
Horst attended our equivalent of grade school from 1947-1954 getting a general education. In Germany, at age 14, a counselor test students to see what trade they might be right for, then you go to school one day a week, and you work at your trade the rest of the week.
By age 16, Horst had left the bakery job and was, as he said, “restless”. When Germany was no longer disarmed and was allowed to form an Army, Horst was drafted into the Germany army. In 1959, he became a paratrooper. After 18 months of boot camp, he was sent to Jump School, where he spent 3 years jumping from planes. He learned combat skills, and continued to jump from planes - he was in his element.
In 1962, Horst was honorable discharged from service, and found a job through an employment agency, driving bus for circus performers. He would drive them to the zoo to train with animals for the circus. It was then that he chose to try his hand at the job.
“I learned about the animals from the zoo and others who were training, and I tried to put together a circus act, taming Lions. After learning how to deal with the animals, you could work up an act, and get a contract to perform with different circuses. His first act was with 10 male lions. It was a very good act, according to Horst, but his boss sold the act to another trainer.
He eventually joined Circus Althoff and was hired under contract. “Most of the acts were taming tigers, but I began with lions, because it was different,” said Horst.
During his time with Circus Althoff, he learned to tame polar bears also, and spent 3 years doing that.
“My dream was to work for Ringling Brothers, but that never did happen,” Merkl lamented.
Until 1967, he performed and perfect his act with Althoff, until being offered a contract with Chepperfield’s Circus in England. He took several lion and tiger acts and combined them, until he had a 6 tiger/4 lions/4 leopard act, which he brought to audiences in England and Scotland.
Circus L’Hiver took his contract in 1969 throughout France, which ended with Marseilles and a 2 year contract to South Africa. “I traveled the world, not with my own act, but always under contract with a circus.”
After two more years with Circus Chippenfield, taking his act back to the United Kingdom, the 6 month quarantine for the animals made his first time back with them, “not so good.”
He feels now that he was getting overconfident, and one day made a mistake in front of 4,000 people. “One tiger was to jump over my head, as I held a hoop for another to jump through. The tiger jumping over my head was not steady on his platform, and when he jumped, his claws scraped across my head as he lost his balance. I felt something warm on my head, and the ringleader pulled me from the ring.” Horst received some 100 stitches and his head was heavily bandaged (“like a turban”, he acknowledged). It was that week that his mother decided to come see his show. They were performing near her home, and she visited him in his trailer just a few days after the accident. She was worried, and wondered what had happened. “I remember when I told her originally that I was joining the circus, she said to me, “As what? A clown?”
Horst had never know his father, who was killed in the Russian front, just before he was born. But he did have a sister, Helga, who married an American soldier and moved in 1968 to a town called Palmyra in the United States.
In 1973-74 Horst was back in Germany and worked again for Circus Althoff. There he met a man named John Cuneo, who offered him a job for the winter months. John worked in the summer with Marineland in Niagara Falls, Canada. So Horst went to Cananda with him and in the winter he performed his act with 17 tigers (5 were white) in Canada. The act then moved to Danbury, Connecticut.
See more in this week's edition