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Ron Guay feeds Shercon his daily bottle of warmed milk at Amazing Exotics Education Center in Central Florida. Guay lost his wife and a business partner to attacks by a tiger last year. [Times photos:
Jonathan Newton]
A lasting trust in tigers

A tiger killed the most important people in his life, but Ron Guay has found a way to ease his grief: with big cats.

By PAUL WILBORN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 27, 1999


UMATILLA -- On the darkest days last year, after all the tragedy, Ron Guay was sure his life was over.

His prize cat -- a white Bengal tiger -- had killed his wife, Joy, and his fellow trainer and best friend, Chuck Lizza, in the space of just five weeks. Not only had he lost the two people closest to him, but also the performing career that had taken him and Joy from their former St. Petersburg home around the world five times as Ron and Joy Holiday, the Cat Dancers.

Guay was tired of the pain. Tired of conversations with dead people. Tired of worrying whether he had crossed the thin line between sane and insane. For six months, he locked the gates of his 16-acre Alachua compound, near Gainesville, and seldom emerged.

photo
The tiger cubs at Amazing Exotics rip around the exercise yard during a play session.
Then, at the urging of a friend, he let Justin and Yvonne Finser come inside. It was the start of a life-saving new friendship. A friendship built around the same wild cats that took so much from him.

Today, Guay is teaching at the Finsers' non-profit education center, Amazing Exotics, near Leesburg in Central Florida. He works around dozens of big cats, wolves, bears, apes and other wild creatures.

"When this happened, people told me to get rid of my animals. Get rid of the animals? It would be easier to put a gun to my head. This is my family," Guay says.

So he has brought what is left of his family with him. There's Shankar and Zena, two Bengals; Midnight, the black leopard; Sugar Bear, a half-leopard, half-jaguar blend; and Shogun, a rare clouded leopard from the Asian rain forest.

Living out in Umatilla, just below the Ocala National Forest, along the high center spine of Florida, Guay is moving slowly into the light.

"I was numb until I came down here. It snapped me out of it," said Guay. "If it wasn't for this place, I think I'd be dead now."

He performs in class

He has taken to his role as a teacher. His area of expertise is big cats in captivity. Since early November, he has been sharing what he knows with young students who come to Amazing Exotics from around the country for nine-week courses in the care and handling of animals

But even as he stands at the front of the small, low-ceilinged classroom, or does handling demonstrations inside the cages of his big cats, Guay's past life, as an international performer, is vividly evident.

His eye makeup is tattooed on -- a time-saver for a performer doing repeat shows -- and his bald head has long been hidden beneath a curly black wig. At 63, he still moves with the lithe ease of a trained dancer.

He and Joy, then named Doris Gagnon, met as children at a dance studio in Biddeford, Maine. They fell in love and moved to New York and then Paris, working as adagio dancers -- blending ballet and acrobatics -- at the Follies-Pigalle and Radio City Music Hall.

Guay
They shared stages with Bob Hope, Marlene Dietrich, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. Ron danced in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews.

Actor and animal-lover William Holden gave the couple their first big cat, and they began adding animal illusions to the stage show. Joy would disappear into a silver ball, flames would flash and then a tiger or leopard would leap from the ball.

The couple toured the world, playing nightclubs and casinos and even giving command performances for queens and potentates. They appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and on the national morning shows. When they weren't touring, they lived in St. Petersburg, in a stone Mediterranean revival-style house in the Pinellas Point area, sharing the big yard with their growing family of cats.

After 15 years, St. Petersburg became too crowded, and their rehearsals too popular, Guay says. So in 1985, the couple moved to the ranch outside of Gainesville.

They added a young zoology major and musician, named Chuck Lizza, to the troupe. And the three worked well together. Ron designed the costumes, Chuck wrote the music and Joy created the choreography for their act. And as Joy contemplated retiring from the road, Ron and Chuck developed a two-man act.

They had already added a white Bengal tiger to the show, training Jupiter from a baby as they did their other cats. They used love and rewards, not punishment as a training incentive. And their cats were family -- the cats spent time in the house and the Guays moved easily in and out of the big cages.

The white tiger came with pedigree papers that proved it wasn't inbred. Inbred cats, Guay says, are unpredictable and dangerous. And if they look normal, it is almost impossible to see the signs of inbreeding until the cats reach maturity at age 3.

Jupiter was 31/2 in September 1998 when Chuck tripped on some construction debris and fell against him. Workers were building a new compound for the animals on the Alachua ranch and had left some fencing on the ground. As Chuck fell against the cat, Jupiter immediately snapped his neck. Chuck, 34, died in Ron's arms.

Guay said he didn't blame the cat. He had been spooked by the construction workers; and Chuck's fall, the Guays both agreed, was just a terrible accident.

But five weeks later, a grief-stricken Joy Guay came out of bed to help feed Jupiter. She was distraught over Chuck's death and had dropped from 115 pounds to 98. Her hands were shaking as she offered Jupiter his food.

With Ron holding his leash, Jupiter attacked. He tore into Joy's throat and hurled her dead body at her husband's feet.

This was no accident, Guay knew. It was a kill.

State game officials came to the compound and shot Jupiter, as he paced around Joy's body. An autopsy proved what Guay had feared. The tiger's papers were false. Jupiter was an inbred cat.

Errand brings friendship

Friends advised him to get rid of his remaining five cats. There were calls from hunting compounds, who wanted to buy the cats so hunters could shoot them. Others called saying they were animal sanctuaries, but when Guay asked for papers and proof, they hung up

Guay stopped answering the telephone and weighed the option of suicide. But he decided against it. His children, the five remaining cats, needed him.

"What kept me going was my belief in God and my love for my animals," he says now.

Yvonne Finser heard about Guay's tragedy through the animal breeding and training grapevine. She and her husband, Justin, had turned their hobby, a love of wild animals, into a business. They had started a school and were opening their 85-acre compound to tour groups from non-profit organizations.

They called Guay, a man they had never met, to offer help.

Thinking these were more people trying to exploit his situation, Guay hung up on them.

But when an elderly animal trainer asked Guay for some traveling cages, she sent Justin and Yvonne up to pick them up.

Guay unlocked his compound and invited them in. He showed them his cats. They told him about their school and invited him to visit.

"We saw a man who was just like us," said Yvonne Finser. "He had no ulterior motives. No hidden agenda. He just loved animals."

Guay also felt at home around the couple and was drawn to their burgeoning animal kingdom not far from Leesburg.

"My life had been Joy and Chuck," Guay says. "And, finally, I found a place and some people who I felt comfortable around."

Now, six months after that first visit, Guay's Alachua compound is on the market, he has put a down payment on a house near the Finsers' property and has taught his first classes.

For his opening lecture at Amazing Exotics, Guay talked about white Bengal tigers. He dedicated the lecture to Chuck and Joy.

Like a rookie performer, on stage for the first time, Guay was nervous. But his new audience, 15 young students from around the country, responded as if he were a seasoned professional.

Ron Guay got a standing ovation.

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