Jay Owenhouse

Bozeman-based magician Jay Owenhouse uses tigers in his act, and has for the past 25 years. The Missoula City Council recently approved a ban on acts like Owenhouse’s. It goes into effect next July.

STEVEN WINSLOW, courtesy photo

Jay Owenhouse, a Bozeman-based magician billed as "the authentic illusionist," might not be back in Missoula anytime soon after this weekend's performances.

In September, the Missoula City Council approved a ban on the use of exotic and wild animals in shows and non-educational performances that will go into effect in July 2016.

That would apply to Owenhouse's tigers, which have been a part of his act for some 25 years.

He said it's an unfortunate case of banning all animal acts due to a few bad apples.

What's more, he said, acts like his help raise awareness about threatened species.

"It's important to really expose people to species in order for them to be passionate about them, so they'll love them and care about them and want to preserve them," he said.

He's raised all of his tigers over the past quarter-century from 12 weeks old, always taken from captive populations and not the wild.

They live in the house till they're 6 months old, a critical time period for them to be socialized using an affectionate training method, based on positive, food-based rewards and communication.

They "tend to bond to one or two people and also become very loyal if they're treated with respect and dignity," he said.

He travels on the road eight to 10 days out of the month, taking summers off. His tigers live in a sanctuary with plenty of room to run. They have a pool and "the best food you can buy." He spends upward of $1,000 a month to feed them.

They travel in a climate-controlled trailer. "They don't live in cages and don't travel in cages. The only time they're in cages is backstage before the show," he said.

"We very much designed our touring schedule in a way that gives their lives dignity and comfort," he said.

They get in the trailer of their own volition, and he said if he ever had a tiger that didn't enjoy the task-based work that goes into the act, then he would find another home for it.

"A lot of animals really thrive from having a relationship with humans as long as they are treated with dignity," he said.

This weekend's performances will include a few tricks with the tigers, making them appear and disappear. He does some David Blaine-style crowd work. It changes with each show, but at a recent one in Arizona he took an audience member's iPhone, placed a pin on Apple Maps, returned the phone and had the man say aloud a city close to his heart. (It was the same one Owenhouse pinned.)

He's also continuing his long-running recreations of Harry Houdini's tricks, updated with higher stakes for modern audiences.

Currently that's a trick called "The Jaws of Death." Owenhouse is tied up in a straight-jacket and suspended upside-down 15 feet off the ground. He's suspended between two steel jaws held open by a rope, which is set on fire.

That gives him about two minutes to free himself. It's dangerous - at a show in Omaha, Nebraska, the time got too tight and he had to break his ankle in order to free himself. This is probably the last tour that he'll do that trick.

His kids, who range in age from 11 to 25, all help with the show, so they only tour on weekends to fit his children's schedules.

Owenhouse can't say for certain whether he'll perform in Missoula again after this weekend. The tigers are a key portion of his act, and he doesn't think someone billed as "an authentic illusionist" should alter his work to suit the city's ordinance.

"They're such a big part of the show and my life, it would feel inauthentic if I didn't have them in the show," he said.

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