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Wild cats put teeth into exhibition

Looking cute and cuddly, three little Siberian tiger cubs meandered on to the stage in Olsrud Arena.

At 16 weeks, Diesel, Kiera and their yet-to-be-named sister look more lovable than vicious and more like stuffed animals than something that could claw the stuffing out of you.

But even in their most affectionate moments, the trio of cubs can be hazardous to one's health as they demonstrated Saturday at the fifth annual Sportsmen's & Outdoor Recreation Show at Jackson County Fairgrounds in Central Point.

Just as trainer Craig Wagner explained how quickly 40-pounders grow into 500-pound cats, Diesel took his cue, locking onto his 48-year-old trainer's right earlobe and drawing blood.

As painful as it was, Wagner took it in stride, responding like a beekeeper shrugs off stings. The audience of 300 laughed nervously and Wagner finished the first of five shows.

— The love bite helps explain why Wagner doesn't take his tigers to similar road shows once they hit 250 pounds.

They're the most untrustworthy creatures on the planet, conceded Wagner, who allows his cats to sleep in his room. They have their own agenda and won't feel bad at all if they kill you. They aren't even worried about going to prison.

Wagner's oft-patched pants have more stitches than Raggedy Andy and his shoes bear the scuffs of many a claw.

I got these pants in 1999 and in one show they got 23 tears, but I just stitch them up, because I can't afford to buy new clothes every time, he says. They'd just mark their territory again.

Born to an American military family in Heidelberg, Germany, Wagner was living a secure suburban lifestyle in St. Paul, Minn., 22 years ago when he tripped across a highway sign that exposed his quiet desperation.

I was running a successful restaurant in Minnesota when I went on a fishing trip, Wagner recalled. I saw a sign that said 'Cougars for sale, next exit.' The old-timer had cougars, foxes, bears and told me 'I'll sell you all this stuff.'

Smitten by the idea, Wagner researched his cats and answered the call of the wild.

First it was one cougar and then a second. His menagerie has since grown to 22 animals.

His resume includes a stint as a trainer for illusionists Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas and Wild Life Safari in Winston, where he put on big cat shows for about five years.

But I got tired of traveling, Wagner said. Every time I'd leave Minnesota, I'd have to leave 20 of my best friends in Minnesota.

Last fall, Wagner opened the 10-acre Great Cats World Park south of Cave Junction, where he will unleash Predators in Action demonstrations this spring.

He owns 28 cats, including 17 species, and hopes to surpass the Cincinnati Zoo's collection of 23 feline species ' building to 26 species and 70 cats.

Wagner said most trainers retire their tigers after two or three years, but he commonly works with them to 10 years, because I have a closer relationship to them.

Taboo, a panther who appeared at Wildlife Safari, had his own special rules.

Leopards are moody, if you trip or fall they're on you in a blink, Wagner said. They're looking for an opportunity. Tigers will let you know they have issues ahead of time.

The Great Cats World Show will continue today in Olsrud Arena with performances at 11 a.m., — p.m. and — p.m.

Diesel, a 16-week-old Siberian tiger cub, nips Craig Wagner on the ear Saturday, causing the trainer to yelp before pushing the cat away. The bite, which drew blood, is just part of a normal day for Wagner, of Great Cats World Park in Cave Junction. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven