Wilbert Behn, Lion Tamer (Gone)
March 2011: Wilbert Behn passed away on March 29, 2011. The attraction closed before the Behn's retired in 2005. This report is mostly from 1991:
Wilbert Behn once carved a larger-than-life wooden version of himself with a chainsaw. The figure stood on a pedestal overlooking Wilbert's indoor lion and tiger arena. During a show, a whip he was cracking to hold an ornery tiger at bay wrapped around the statue arm. The statue fell and narrowly missed crushing Wilbert. "I almost killed myself," he cackles.
The broken statue's head now rests in an alcove off the entrance/office of Behn's Game Farm, home of an exciting life-or-death animal show, nestled among placid dairy farms. Wilbert's wife Martha shows off his other chainsaw sculptures, and his woodburning art. "We had to get a faster woodburner to keep up with his fast mind." A woman hooked to an oxygen tank and several children look on silently from an assortment of stuffed chairs crowding the office.
Wilbert is off preparing for his lion training show, so Martha issues us cans of corn and guides us through the attraction's farm. "That's Meg," Martha points out a little dog mooching corn kernels we've been instructed to feed to the goats. "She's a real corn dog." Martha has all the ad libs down pat. "That's Nuisance, that little goat," she offers as we are butted in the shins by another farm friend.
"Wilbert had a triple bypass . . . and was back up performing in five days." The noise and smells of animals permeates the air -- ducks, geese, goats, dogs -- and an occasional low-throated lion roars from some unseen cage, we hope. They all know we have corn. We meet Ringo the untamed wolf, Sandy the kid-hating dog, Vietnamese Pot Bellied Pigs ("The latest craze in pets.") and Zimbro the Bramha bull. When Zimbro lies down, Nuisance dances on his stomach.
Wilbert Behn appears in his best tamer-of-wild beasts garb. He's 71 years old (in 1991), has been training and performing with animals for thirty-one years -- bears, lions, tigers -- yet has never worked in a circus. He's completely self-taught. He warms up with a hectic outdoor show of leaping, barking canines. But the real spectacle is in the indoor arena.
A "Not responsible for injuries" sign hangs outside.
Wilbert kicks off the arena show by eating fire three times - "Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner." Breezy Tijuana Brass music creaks from a worn tape player as a lion races from its pen and jumps up on barrels. Behn cracks the whip and barks his commands. The audience is safe behind floor-to-ceiling hurricane fence. But how safe is Wilbert?
Tanya, the tiger, walks a high-wire. Behn knows of only one other cat that has ever done this, and he trained his in 2 1/2 months.
Visiting circus trainers are astonished. They ask where his cage boys are, assistants who push the animals out when it's time to perform. He has none, and has trained the animals to come out when they hear the music tape.
The "Theme From S.W.A.T." inspires Clyde, an eight year old lion that Behn has trained to perform in slow-motion. He rolls over in slo mo, walks up ladders, and jumps between blocks. A big cat leaps through a flaming hoop, but not without snarling menacingly. Wilbert fires a pistol at another tiger -- it falls "dead" on the spot. He jams his head into a lion's mouth, and smiles defiantly.
The performance ends with enthusiastic applause and visible relief on the faces of the audience. "Why do you risk your life everyday?" people ask. "Hell," snaps Wilbert, "I'm 72 years old. I lived most of it, I think."
March 2011: Wilbert Behn, 91, passed away on March 29, 2011.
May 2008: Candy Behn reports: "Behn's Game Farm is no longer. Wilbert and Martha no longer live on the farm. Both are alive and well and living elsewhere."
September 2005: We visited the Behns. It's true -- Wilbert has retired, and no longer performs with the big cats. They are still cared for out in the pens around the old arena building.
September, 2004: Now 85, Wilbert is no longer doing the shows. He still cares for his lions. Wilbur and Martha open the game farm during the summer for visitors. Wilbur sometimes demonstrates his fire swallowing at local events.
March, 1999: Reports of Martha's demise are greatly exaggerated... and other observations.
1997: Wilbert is still going strong. "I feel great." He has trained a cat to walk on a ball -- otherwise the show is the same.
"Nobody wants me to quit. It's surprising how many people want to be cat trainers. All I have to do is take 'em back there when I'm feeding, they forget all about it. I tell them, 'You'll never make a cat trainer. You'll get killed the first day.' I been at this 40 years and I still don't trust 'em. No way. My best trained cats were the ones that hurt me."
"I ran my grandchildren in a race last fall. They're 16, 17 years old. I beat 'em all."