William Vos

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Animal Trainer

By Peter Henssen

A well-known and respected animal trainer, Wim Vos (1943-2019) was born November 18, 1943 in the Dutch village of Laren, in North Holland, where his father owned a shop; his family had no connection with the circus world. As soon as Wim had learned to ride a bicycle, he went to visit Circus Strassburger winter quarters, which were located in Hilversum, just a couple of miles from Vim's home. There he met Willy Strassburger who, in time, allowed Wim to assist him as he trained a group of camels and lamas. Wim was not particularly interested in the circus as such, but he was fascinated by its animals. The process of training them would become his passion.

In 1960, Wim worked in the stables of Circus Carré in Amsterdam, where Circus Strassburger had a regular season in the winter, and he took care of their horses and a few zebras. There was also a tiger act in the show, which had been rented out by Erie Klant, whose zoo and school for animal training in Valkenburg, in the southwest of the Netherlands, were well known all over the circus world. During a visit, Klant met Wim and hired him. Wim began his performing career as one of the camel riders at the German Circus Roland, where Jos Uyterlinde—another of Klant’s pupils—presented the act. At that time, Wim also took care of all sorts of animals.

A few years later, Jos Uyterlinde produced a spectacular cage act(English/American) Act performed in a cage, such as lion or tiger acts. involving a lion riding a bison, in combination with a dog and a vulture. Jos asked Wim to become his assistant. In 1965 they toured with the Dutch circus Toni Boltini. There was also a lion act on the program, which was presented by Aad de Vries, yet another pupil of Erie Klant. Wim helped him taking care of the cats and stood by the cage at each performance, observing the animals.

The following year, in March, Aad de Vries was severely wounded by a lion. Jos Uyterlinde replaced him for a few months. However, Toni Boltini understood that he had to search for a permanent replacement, and he hired Wim to present the act. Thus, in 1967, Wim made his debut in the cage with a group of lions at Circus Toni Boltini. Then the Boltini’s ringmaster(American, English) The name given today to the old position of Equestrian Director, and by extension, to the presenter of the show. thought that "William" sounded better than "Wim," so Wim Vos became, to the circus world and his audiences, William Vos.

William Vos, Lion Trainer

William Vos remained with Toni Boltini and managed to add a few young lions to his act. Then, in 1969, Boltini sent him with his lion act to the Spanish Circo Cristo. But he was soon called back to the Netherlands, after Barbara Poludniak, who presented her polar bear act with her husband at Circus Toni Boltini, had been severely mauled by one of her bears, to the extent that the act had to be replaced.

William returned home with a charming, Polish-born young woman named Barbara Owsik. She was part of a dance company that performed in fairs and circuses, and was appearing in Circo Cristo's show. Oftentimes, William had seen her by his lions' cage wagons, watching the animals. He eventually got to know her, they fell in love, and he invited her to go with him to the Netherlands. They were married that same year, 1969, and Barbara became a reliable assistant during William’s whole career—even replacing him in the cage at times.

At the end of 1969, Toni Boltini sold his lions to Jimmy Chipperfield, who therefore became William's new boss. The following year (1970) William and Chipperfield's lions toured with the East-German Circus Apollo. But business was bad, and the tour was cancelled after a few months. At that time, Boltini was looking for another cat act: His circus’s attendance had plummeted when his show was presented without one. So, William and his lions returned to Boltini.

Then, Vos went to perform with Chipperfield's lions at Paris's Cirque d’Hiver, then in a circus on the Spanish isle of Mallorca, and toured with Cirque Pinder in France. Back in England, he put together a mixed animal act consisting of two polar bears, two Baribal bears, six lions and four tigers. William was proud of having been able to complete the job within just a few months. The act was first presented by Mary Chipperfield, assisted by William, and later by William himself. In 1973 he appeared with Chipperfield's lions on the French popular television show, ''La Piste aux Etoiles''.

William became also interested in training elephants. In 1974 he toured with the Österreichisher National Circus (Austrian National Circus) of Elfi Althoff-Jacobi, where he appeared in the ring three times: First with the mixed animal group, then with a group of four elephants, and finally with a giraffe. That same year, he participated in the first International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, where he received the Nice-Matin award. The last two of his eight years of employment by Chipperfield, he worked at the French Cirque Amar (then owned by Firmin Bouglione, Jr.), where he produced a new act consisting of thirteen tigers, later presented by Alexandre Bouglione, Firmin’s son, with great success.

From Independent Contractor To John Cuneo's Employ

Then William became his own boss. Back in the Netherlands he trained a group of four young lions and four young tigers. His first engagement as an independent animal trainer was in 1978 at the French Cirque Rancy, followed by the Dutch Circus Mikkenie, Cirque Achille Zavatta in France, and Circus Kronebau in Munich. Consecration came in 1981, when he was featured at the famous Circus Knie in Switzerland. Afterwards he performed at the Dutch Circus Holiday and the Italian circus Liana Orfei.

As they got older, the relations between William's tigers and lions became difficult. He had to part with his lions, which he sent to retirement in a zoo. A few years later, he sold his tigers to the Chapiteaux-Spectacles Jean Richard. They were presented at the Cirque Jean Richard by Patrick Tessier. Then William bought ten young lions from Jimmy Chipperfield, trained them and went to work with them for Liana Orfei in Italy.

In 1987, William Vos arrived at Cirque Pinder, now owned (since 1983, after the bankruptcy of Jean Richard’s circus company) by Gilbert Edelstein, with a verbal commitment for the season. Unfortunately, Edelstein suddenly informed William of his plan was to add more tigers to the old Chapieaux-Spectacles Jean Richard's group and have a new act created for his son, Frédéric Edelstein, by William. He was not interested in William's lion act. This was not how William Vos had understood the deal, and he left Pinder. Instead, he went to Belgium, first to his former student Alexandre Bouglione, and then to the Piste Circus of Jeanine de Baets and Mario Masson. Then Fernand Banning hired him for his Christmas show, the Kerstcircus Ahoy, in Rotterdam.

Next engagements were Circus Kronebau in Munich, followed by the Dutch Circus Mullens. William, however, began to wonder if should remain self-employed. At Circus Krone, his act had impressed the American animal trainer and entrepreneur John Cuneo (1931-2019), whose Hawthorn Corporation, located in Richmond, Illinois, trained and rented out elephant and cat acts to circuses all over the world. William decided to accept his very interesting proposition to go to the United States and work for him. The year was 1988.

Cuneo had already in his employ some famous animal trainers, among whom Roel de Vries, Susan Lacey and Trudy Strong. He had at the time a group of white tigers that worked in Japan at the Kinoshita Circus. William went to present this group, which he also expanded successfully. He returned to the United States in 1992 and would remain there until 1997. In 2000, still in the employ of Cuneo, he took a group of white tigers to the Spanish Circo Mundial, via the 24th International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, where he made his second appearance.

The Final Years

Then, William received a job offer from Safari World in Bangkok, Thailand—a mixture of zoo and amusement park, which also presented a variety of shows. William accepted their proposition and left Cuneo in good terms, after thirteen years of collaboration. In Thailand, William got the responsibility of a show that included a group of ten elephants, seven bears, a couple of zebras and a group of camels and dromedaries. The show was beginning to take shape after two years of preparation and training, but an outbreak of SARS and bird flu caused the the project to come to a halt.

William returned to the Netherlands in 2002 and contemplated retiring after forty years in show business. But soon, circus people were on the phone; Mario Masson asked him for assistance, and Michel Louis, director of the zoo of Amnéville, in the northeast of France, offered him an advisory position for his new Tiger World. (William also formed there an aspirant animal trainer, Rémy Flachaire.) Although he had definitely retired from performing, his professional retirement didn't happen until 2018, when he finally left the Amnéville zoo.

Wim Vos spent his retirement in his home in Eemnes, a small village near Amsterdam, with his wife, Barbara. He passed away on August 13, 2019; he was seventy-five years old. Wim Vos was laid to rest in the nearby cemetery of Laren, his birthplace, where his brother, who is a catholic priest, conducted the funeral mass. As a cat trainer(English/American) An trainer or presenter of wild cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, etc., William Vos was a perfectionist who had a profound love for his animals—which worked with visible pleasure. As the title of the book Dutch circus historian Dick Vrieling wrote about him suggests, William Vos was truly a "Grandmaster" of the big cage.

Suggested Reading

  • Dick H. Vrieling, Wim Vos: Grootmeester in de leeuwenkooi (Amsterdam, Club van Circusvrienden Nederland, 2019).

See Also

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