"People told me that black people don't go to circuses," he says. But Walker thought that traditional circus acts packaged with funk, soul, rap, urban slang and culture, wrapped in an atmosphere of family values, could change that.
He was right. The UniverSoul Circus expects thousands to attend its nine shows this week at Swope Park.
UniverSoul aims to teach inner-city kids that anything's possible using, among other unique acts, Ghetto clown Maybelle, who sports nappy hair and Coke-bottle glasses.
The show features acts from all over the world, including Emmy-nominated aerialist Jean Claude, the Twisted Sistas contortionists, a Russian acrobat trio, tigers, lions, a donkey with an attitude, and three elephants named Becky, Tracy and Susie.
UniverSoul's two circuses tour nine months a year. Black icons such as Nelson Mandela, Diana Ross and Magic Johnson have attended the show. Black communities in every major city have embraced the circus as their own.
But if Walker has succeeded in repackaging an old form of entertainment for a newer and blacker audience, his circus still has close ties to the rest of the industry and to one of its ever-present liabilities -- accusations of animal mistreatment.
Fans walking into UniverSoul's show this Saturday may notice picketers from Animal Outreach of Kansas, who plan to protest that circus as well as the Ararat Shrine Circus at Municipal Auditorium.
"Exotic animal acts in circuses need to be totally eliminated," says Judy Carman, cofounder of AOK. For ammunition, she plans to exhibit for ticket buyers filing into the circus a graphic video that shows the brutal treatment Becky suffered when the UniverSoul elephant was in training at another outfit, the Carson & Barnes Circus.
Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released video footage documenting an undercover investigation of the training methods at Carson & Barnes, which leases elephants to other companies, including UniverSoul.
"Sink it in the foot! Tear it off! Make 'em scream!" trainer Tim Frisco yells in the six-minute video, shot by PETA's Bryan Smith, who spoke to the Pitch on the condition that his real last name not be revealed. Smith says he's received death threats since his investigation, which took place from 1999 to 2001
In the video, Frisco disciplines three elephants, including Becky, using a bullhook, a long rod with a steel hook used to jab an elephant's tender spots.
"Becky! Becky! You motherfucker!" Frisco yells, beating her with a bullhook as she cries out with loud, trumpeting screams. Also on the tape is a handler burning hair off an elephant with a blowtorch, and Frisco swinging the bullhook like a baseball bat, demonstrating how to deliver uppercuts to the sensitive chins of elephants. "You can't do it on the road," Frisco says. "I'm not going to touch her in front of a thousand people."
Smith says abuse is common. He tells of elephants being smashed between the eyes with baseball bats, elephant skin catching fire from blowtorches, bullhooks being imbedded into bloody trunks and spines, and electric prods being applied to elephants' genitals.
Carson & Barnes and Frisco didn't respond to inquiries from the Pitch, but the Carson & Barnes Web site claims, "Our elephants are only trained through positive reinforcement."
"The only thing positive about the training is that they were positively beaten," Smith says. "I guarantee you, if you go look at Becky, you'll see little white marks on her. Tracy, and especially Susie, you'll find the remnants of hook marks, of beatings."
UniverSoul's Tyrone Taylor is one of the industry's few black trainers. He works the elephants in the ring as the Diamond Soul Divas dance on their necks. Schooled under the legendary Gunther-Gebel Williams, Taylor is overshadowed by the elephants, despite his flashy red costume and bullhook. "There's elephants out there who work good, but still it takes a trainer to make them want to do it," Taylor says.
In 1993, while working for Circus America, Taylor refused to work an elephant called Tyke. Instead, he advised that she be placed in a zoo. "That elephant went crazy and ran around a park and hurt someone," Taylor says.
The next year, Tyke rampaged, killing her trainer, Allen Campbell. Police fired 87 bullets before Tyke collapsed in downtown Honolulu. Campbell's autopsy revealed cocaine and alcohol in his system.
"I read, oh yeah, 'Elephant in Hawaii kills,' and I said, 'Tyke.' I knew it. I told them. I told them," Taylor says.
"Tyke had broken away on at least two previous occasions while being exhibited," says a 1996 report from the United States Department of Agriculture. Tyke's owner was ordered to pay a penalty of $12,500.
Former USDA veterinary inspector Dr. Peggy Larson says, "Tyke was way too dangerous to stay in the circus."
Walker says that even though none of UniverSoul's animals have attacked, "Nature guides them. They have emotional reactions. They have bad days and get angry."
The USDA says Carson & Barnes paid "a $400 stipulation for improper handling of animals" last year after PETA turned over its video to officials. Critics, including Larson, say the USDA is not doing its job.
"The problem is that the USDA does not want to shut anyone down," Larson says. "They're not supposed to put anyone out of business." Larson says the nature of the circus business makes it difficult for the USDA to enforce the Animal Welfare Act. "By the time we finish the paperwork, they are in another state."
As for animals that attack, Larson says, "They have no control over preventing an animal from performing based on its history -- however dangerous."
When violations are found, it's the animals' owners who are cited, not the circuses that lease them.
Smith says Carson & Barnes would learn two or three days in advance when the USDA was coming and "clean [its] act up."
"You see all the [USDA] reports on Carson & Barnes, and it's a complete joke, because the reports that they have out there are absolutely nothing compared to what they do," Smith says.
In June, PETA asked the USDA to check on Rocky, a boxing kangaroo traveling with UniverSoul's other circus. On July 8, a USDA investigator inspected Rocky and found that he had a serious infection called lumpy jaw. An August 29 letter from a USDA investigator reported that Rocky was "doing well." He died two days later.
"We take good care of our animals," Walker insists. PETA and other animal-rights groups "point out the extremes," he says. "You can find instances of good and bad people in any business."
"I don't work that way," Taylor says. "It don't have to be that way." Most in the circus industry, including Taylor, say elephants can be trained through positive reinforcement, such as rewarding good behavior with food.
Taylor says he controls his animals vocally. "They're watching me, physical movements. They'll react to my body. That's the kind of trainer I want to be."
But the AOK's Carman doesn't buy the assurances of the UniverSoul ringleaders. To Carman, ghetto clowns and a kid-friendly appeal to black families don't change the fact that elephants with a proven history of abuse provide much of the entertainment.
UniverSoul's Taylor is aware of the video but claims that Becky and the other animals don't suffer mistreatment under his control. "There's a fine line between discipline and abuse," he says.
"I don't do things like that," Taylor says. "But I've seen things."
Maybe Becky, Tracy and Susie are better off today under Taylor's charge. But in two weeks it's back home to Carson & Barnes headquarters -- and winter training with Frisco.