About a year ago, on an April afternoon, Al Wolter drove to his neighbor’s house in Sandstone to help with a controlled burn. The neighbor, Cynthia Gamble, a wild-animal trainer, was his best female friend and the two regularly shared cocktails and sang karaoke together on his home machine. “She had an earthy sense of humor,” he said, an affectionate way of indicating that Cyndi could tell a good dirty joke. Gamble seemed to be most comfortable with male friends and often phoned Wolter to let off steam about personal problems. Lately, the problems had been mounting. Her business partner, Craig Wagner, had just left the state with a majority of their holdings, and her fourteen-year-old son Garrett was floundering in school.
Wolter unlocked Gamble’s front gate and, seeing that his friend wasn’t around, shot hoops for a while with Garrett. The two then walked through a pasture where a musk ox grazed and headed toward the modified pole barn Garrett shared with his mother. Inside the barn, the living quarters were separated by sliding glass doors from a row of twenty large cages. Three of the cages contained tigers, the B-grade animals Gamble had agreed to keep when her exotic-cat business, the Center for Endangered Cats, went bust. The animals were not trainable and Wolter knew that Gamble took care of them only because they had nowhere else to go. One in particular, a ten-year-old Bengal named Tango, was notably vicious. Said Wolter: “She knew this tiger was a killer.”
Cyndi wasn’t afraid of the tigers, cougars, jaguars, servals, coyotes, and caracals she’d trained and worked with for more than twenty years. Nor did she kid herself by considering them pets. She followed meticulous feeding procedures, especially with the tigers, which could consume more than ten pounds of food per day. Feeding them wasn’t what you’d call fun. It meant opening a small, six-by-eighteen-inch window and throwing in large chunks of the meat she kept in a freezer. Once, when Wolter was helping out, he tossed a slab and missed the window. When he moved forward to retrieve it, Gamble hollered in a booming voice, “Get out of there!” Wolter leapt back in a heartbeat.
Garrett entered the section of the barn where the cats were kept and walked toward Tango’s cage, which was partially covered by a sheet of plywood. Something made him yell and run for a .22 rifle, calling to Wolter to shoot the tiger. Unarmed, Wolter approached the cage, where Tango was roaring and leaping against the sides. A safety door—a remotely controlled guillotine contraption—had been left open, which was unusual, not to mention dangerous. It was then that he looked beyond the piece of plywood and saw a tableau that will remain with him always. His friend Cynthia Gamble’s nude and destroyed body lay limp on the floor of the tiger’s cage. Tango had stripped her of clothing before eating her breasts and both arms up to the elbows and then licking her clean of blood.
The tiger had to be tranquilized in order to retrieve Gamble’s body. And then, of course, it was killed. The news cameras rolled and reporters tried to explain how such a situation had come to be. They concluded that Cyndi, who two years previously had filed for bankruptcy and taken a job at a local casino, had been struggling to scrounge up enough meat to keep the tigers adequately fed. In fact, she’d fallen back on donations of road-killed deer. The tiger, given the opportunity, had attacked because it was starving. Tango and the other two cats were at least one hundred pounds underweight.
And so it was that Cyndi Gamble—passionate animal lover, professional wrangler in films and demonstrations, author, film editor, conservationist, amateur biologist, mother, wife, daughter, and ultimately victim to her life’s work—became the tragic public face of a very private and reticent network of exotic-wildlife owners. For that brief moment, the lights flashed on and the average person realized that some of their fellow Minnesotans kept tigers and lions and bears in their backyards next to swing sets and tomato plants. And then, just as suddenly, the lights flashed off again.
More videos of wild cat interactions:
Lion hugs a woman.
Lion hugs a man emphatically.
Lion greets an old friend — a man he hasn’t seen for a year.
Lion and ferret play.