Getting in the ring with bruisers that put Mike Tyson to shameFootball players are mean. Mike Tyson is meaner. And then there is Pavlenko Nikolai Karpobich.
Pavlenko is no former Spetsnaz (Russia’s special forces), nor is he built like Hulk Hogan. He is rather on the slim side. Nothing spectacular.
No six-packs or biceps the size of thigh muscles. A clean-shaven face and friendly smile suggest anything but violence. Then again, many serial killers also look normal.
No, Pavlenko is in a different league.
He deals with beasts that few of the tough guys in the world would dare to lay their fingers on, or even step within 20 meters (66 feet) of. He is the beast master. Literally.
When he steps into the ring, he is in charge. “When I go into the cage, it means that I am taking command of my territory,” he says.
“I am the leader of the pack.”
Every day, Pavlenko deals with a dozen Sumatran tigers. Though Sumatrans are the smallest tiger subspecies, the average male weighs a formidable 120 kilograms (265 pounds), and is 2.4 meters long , if you include the tail.
For 45 years, Pavlenko has been training them to perform in a Russian circus.
Recently at Gymnastics Hall in Jamsil Olympic Park, where the Bolshoi Circus is performing through Jan. 25, I had the chance to glimpse the magnificent animals that are Pavlenko’s coworkers.
Only with the utmost effort did I restrain myself from touching one of the paws peeking out from the cages. (I guess the strong odor helped a little bit, too.)
I once read that tiger trainers always step into the ring before the tigers do, a gesture which, roughly translated from Tigeran, means “this is my territory.” Supposedly, this gives the trainer a psychological edge.
Eager to test my knowledge, I asked Pavlenko about this. “Nyet” was the answer he gave. But then, Pavlenko might be a special case. He has spent his whole life with tigers. They’re all he knows ― one reason he calls them, passionately, “my tigers.”
Still, even for this Russian who has worked with the big cats his entire life, there would seem to be danger at every moment.
“Of course I have been beaten and scratched a few times. No big deal,” says Pavlenko. His tone suggests it is the most stupid question he’s ever heard.
“But why?” I found myself asking. After all, Pavlenko feeds each tiger about 6.5 kilograms of meat every single day. He is their mother figure.
“It’s the wild nature of them,” says Pavlenko. Now he looks even more annoyed.
Knowing so much, I ask whether all the crowd noise, and some camera flashes from ignorant members of the audience, pose any danger to him when he is at work. “Not really,” he says. “Oh really? Why is that?” I asked. “That’s just part of the routine,” he says.
(Interestingly, he did enter the cage first at the beginning of that night’s performance. Maybe it’s one of his trade secrets he doesn’t want others to know.)
“They are my family,” the trainer says of his tigers. “The oldest right now is Karta. Sixteen years we have been together. Others I spent 21 years with.”
For him, living with big cats and putting his life on the line isn’t just a job.
In Pavlenko’s own words, it’s an art, and a sport.
by Brian Lee