Three times a day Vincent and Georgina Von Duke show off their kids to Westfair attendees.
Tigers Nania, Nipper, Sheik and Kaya, along with lions Mufasa and Chi Chi, entertain as part of the Close Encounters of the Exotic Kind show.
“They’re our family,” Georgina Von Duke, who goes by the nickname Pom Pom, told the gathered on Friday afternoon. “We’re with them 24 hours a day because we can’t find babysitters.”
The Von Dukes, along with a handful of employees, operate out of Sarasota, Fla., hauling a total of nine felines – including three cubs – across the country during the spring and summer. Georgina explained that during the spring they travel with the Shrine Circus and come summer it’s fair season.
In all, they’re on the road – with brief respites back in Florida – from March until October, depending on bookings.
“It’s not a job,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle, a way of life. We eat, drink and breathe this.”
She added, with a laugh, “we don’t know anything else.”
Georgina was born into an England circus family and is a seventh-generation animal handler. Vincent’s a sixth-generation member of the profession. They’ve been together 25 years and live on a ranch, where they house, care for, feed and train the animals.
“We’re kind of like farmers,” she said, taking a look at her surroundings for an analogy. “Our parents taught us, they handed down the profession. We spend the winter getting ready for the spring, then work during the warm months.”
At the beginning of each show Georgina greets attendees and introduces the animals – tiger varieties include Bengal and Siberian, the lions are African – which she notes were all born and bred in the United States. The opening is an act of full disclosure and a salvo against any animal rights activists that question their business.
“We don’t take animals from the wild, from the jungle,” she said. “We’ve had cats live to 27-years-old. That’s unheard of. We take care of ‘em.”
During the show Pom Pom does the talking, while Vincent enters the cage to take the cats through a series of feats, including jumping over fences, across two platforms and, in the finale, through an ablaze hoop. Bobbi Munch of Neola, with daughters Charlie, 11, and Frankie, 10, along with their friend Molly Nelson, 10, said they enjoyed seeing exotic animals up close.
“And I liked it when they jumped through the hoop on fire,” Charlie said.
Magic Creations, featuring Keith Leff, features fewer animals but more laughter – and magic.
The Kansas City, Mo.-area man preforms a magic show that’s long on slight of hand and comedy that entertains both children and adults. Many of his tricks – including turning a Coca Cola bottle into a glass filled with Coca Cola and tricking the eye with dominoes – feature Leff showing how the trick is done, only to fool the eye further.
Leff received a magic kit for Christmas when he was 7 years old and never gave up the dream. After performing some while bartending in college – he’s a Kansas State grad – and after he made enough of a name for himself that he left his job with Sprint to go full-time. His summer is full of fairs, festivals and library events, while during the school year he has an anti-bullying magic show and does numerous corporate events.
“I hope my magic helps people forget their problems and worries for a while, transports them to an enchanted place,” Leff said after a show. “I’m blessed to do what I love.”
Leff preforms his Magic Creations at 1:30, 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. today and Sunday, while the Close Encounters show goes on at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. The third green space activity at Westfair, Runaway Saws chain saw art carvings, is on display from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.