Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Though She Barely Survived Three Close Mauls, It's Still Love Among the Bruins for Ursula Bottcher

The Goldilocks of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a 5', 105-pound East German named Ursula Bottcher. The 10 co-stars in her unique act stand as high as 12 feet and weigh up to 1,600 pounds. But when she cracks her whip, the polar bears dance, prance and leap through a fiery hoop. By her grand finale, Bottcher's favorite, Alaska, is so docile that he lumbers up to fetch a cube of sugar from her lips. It looks like a kiss.

But there's a deadly risk involved. Ursula, 39, has survived three major attacks by her bears, the last one in Richmond a month ago. "You never can trust them," she says. When she began to waltz with Nixe in a 1975 performance in East Berlin, the 700-pound female suddenly floored her, then lunged for the jugular. Five other bears moved in for the kill. Ursula's partner, Manfred Horn, batted the beasts away with a wooden pole, and Ursula pluckily resumed the dance. "If I didn't do it with her right away, I'd lose the trick forever," she explains. "People applauded me a couple of minutes." Then it took 43 stitches to close the wounds on Bottcher's back, neck and shoulders.

The daughter of a Dresden road construction engineer and his wife, Ursula left home at 15 for the big top. She started as an usher and then learned to ride horses bareback. Her daring caught the eye of a lion tamer looking for a woman to jazz up the act—40 others had failed his audition out of fear. Ursula (her name, fittingly, comes from the Latin ursa, meaning she-bear) was soon training lions, leopards and tigers. In 1963 the East German regime entrusted her with eight polar bear cubs, and 11 years later in Madrid Ursula won the coveted Ernst RenkePlaskett circus award.

Then in 1976 the East Germans contracted Bottcher and her bears to Ringling. She gets a stipend for living expenses from her government and now calls the circus train of one of Ring-ling's two U.S. touring units her home. After a short marriage to a big top truck driver, she has lived for 13 years with ex-lion tamer Horn, now 40. They travel with two Yorkshire terriers and don't plan to have children. "We have 12 kids, two little ones and 10 big ones," figures Bottcher. "That's enough."