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Despite his wounds, he's back in cage

With 25 stitches in his lip and arm, he goes back to his routine with his big cats.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published September 14, 2006


[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Every day trainer Lance Kollman works with the tigers keeping them in shape. He was injured by one of his tigers on Tuesday.

BALM — He stood holding his lip. Blood was pouring out, but he kept his voice calm, level. “Good girl,” he said to Rula. “Easy. Easy.” The tiger listened to his voice, settling.

Then Lancelot Kollmann walked out of the training cage. He went into the house and looked in the mirror.
Where Rula had clawed him, it looked like he’d been hit with a hatchet.

His lower lip was split in two. On the side of his arm, the tiger had sliced down to bone.

That was Tuesday.

On Thursday, Kollmann, 37, walked back into the training cage with 25 stitches in his lip, five stitches and a drainage shunt in his arm, and 10 tigers.

Kollmann put them through their paces, calling each by name. They leaped between platforms and lay down at his feet at the tap of the whip. They snarled at him. He rubbed them under the chin.

It’s his routine. He does this every morning, at his compound in rural eastern Hillsborough County, even though he hasn’t performed in a circus in six years.

Family tragedy and legal roadblocks threw him out of the circus world. He’s still finding his way back, but the circus has changed: animal acts have fallen out of favor.

Still he keeps training. How could he walk away?

***

Tiger training runs in his blood. His grandmother’s grandmother was in the circus. His grandfather trained tigers, and his uncles carried on the tradition.

Kollmann grew up cleaning out the big cats’ cages.

He wanted more. Larry allenDean,  who worked alongside the family, remembers him as a “google-eyed” kid crazy about tigers.

allenDean gave him a whip to play with. But neither he nor Kollmann’s uncles would let the boy touch a tiger.

“You don’t bring a little 8-year-old kid in a cage,” allenDean said. “They’re snacks.”

When Kollmann was a teenager, his father and uncles owned a circus. One night, the three men argued. The uncles stormed off.

Kollman’s father looked at him.

Lance, he said, you do the act.

That night Kollmann walked into the big top. He was 16, with no formal training. But he had watched uncle Arturo for nine years.

“I knew exactly how he moved,” Kollmann said. “I knew exactly what he said ... I never realized I was going to school. I learned to read the animals.”

At his command, lions, tigers and leopard jumped through fiery hoops.

“I was more nervous after I came out than when I went in,” he said. “I’d never seen the animals without some wire in between us. Once you see them without the wire, they’re a lot bigger.”

That night under the big top, his fate was sealed.

“Once you do your first performance, that’s it,” Kollmann said.

“I don’t know how to explain it, because I ain’t never been high. Something stimulates your brain ... like when you feel scared, but also excited.”

***

Kollmann spreads out newspaper clippings on the kitchen table.

They show him in his gladiator costume, travelling with his family’s circus. Those days are gone now. He doesn’t know if they will return.

The catastrophe struck on Jan. 26, 2000.

That day one of the family’s elephants, Kenya, broke free and stomped his aunt, Teresa Ramos-Caballero, to death in Riverview.

Teresa’s death was the beginning of the family’s undoing.

The state charged Kollmann’s father, Manuel Ramos, with misdemeanors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to prosecute him for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Ramos avoided federal prosecution by giving up his USDA license and turning his animals over to Kollmann.

But without his father’s license, Kollmann couldn’t perform with the cats.

He applied for a license of his own. He was turned down.

So he took a job driving trucks. Later, he borrowed money and bought a meat processing plant down the road.

Every morning, sometimes before dawn, he would train the cats.

***

In 2005, Kollmann finally got his federal license.

Kollmann’s facilities are much better than his father’s, said Lt. Steve DeLacure of the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.“He does a really good job,” DeLacure said. “His facility is top notch.”But Kollmann still hasn’t gone back to the big top.

“In the years I wasn’t performing, I lost contact with a lot of people,” he said.
And the circus has also changed.

There are fewer jobs for cat acts now, said Larry allenDean, Kollmann’s old mentor.

“There’s no work left,” allenDean said. “Shows are giving it up.”

Animal-rights groups put pressure on circuses, allenDean said. And cat acts require extra insurance premiums and labor.

DeLacure said he’s watched the industry dwindle over the last 10 years.

But some hang on.

“It’s the only life they know,” he said.

***

When Rula attacked him on Tuesday, Kollmann said, it was an accident — hers and his.

Kollmann let the new, untrained tiger hang out in the training cage, so that she could get used to the space while he cleaned up.

He was behind her when he slipped in the mud. Startled, she whipped around, swiping him with her claws.

“When she wheeled up and clawed me in the lip I was thinking, 'Be ready. Be ready in case she tries to bite you,’ ” he recalled.

Two days later, his wife, Nelitza Vallellanes, rubbed hydrogen peroxide on his wounds. He ate a donut. It hurt to chew.

In a few months, a friend will come to train with Kollmann’s tigers. Then, next summer, the tigers will go touring with a circus.

Kollmann will stay behind. He has responsibilities now. And years of rest have softened his once-firm physique.

He’s been training his son, Michael, 13. Someday he might decide enter the family business.

How will he know if it’s in him to train tigers?

Once he has his first performance, Kollmann said. Once tigers lie down at his feet. Then he’ll know.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 14, 2006, 22:06:03]


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