Text & Photo by Chris Marais
Boys lucky enough to grow up in the Karoo have always kept an astonishing variety of household pets, including meerkats, snakes, hedgehogs, parrots and pigeons. Most of them outgrow this love of ‘animal familiars’ as adulthood arrives.
Not Frank Wilke Jnr of Aberdeen in the Eastern Cape, however. No, young Frank started up a tortoise zoo in the village and soon moved on to baboons, jackals, monkeys, porcupines and all manner of suricate.
As the years passed, he expanded his menagerie into an export business and moved the zoo to the outskirts of Aberdeen for added space. At one stage, he could boast a collection of more than three dozen lions in his care.
Frank had a special love for the circus, and performing lions in particular. To that end, he purchased Tikkie and Tokkie from Boswell’s Circus and they soon became local darlings.
His coup d’etat was buying up all the Pagel Circus beasts in 1950 for a sum of 4 000 pounds. The Strongman of the South African circus world was Wilhem Pagel, whom Frank Wilke idolised. In fact, he named his Aberdeen mansion Pagel House in honour of the big fellow.
About 70 years ago, small town Karoo folk could pose for photographs right next to a brace of Frank Wilke’s lions. They were quite safe, because he cunningly inserted a thick pane of plate glass between person and predator.
The Amazing Wedding
The highlight event of Frank Wilke’s amazing zoo in Aberdeen took place in 1954 when local girl Numeri Kilian married Wilhelm Pagel’s right hand circus man Bubi Maier in the centre of a full lion cage.
Seven lionesses were in attendance – certainly the most bizarre bridesmaids ever seen in the Karoo.
The delightful Gina de Beer, a long-time local, has written a memoir called Ek Onthou Aberdeen (I Remember Aberdeen).
She tells of the popular Tickey Dam right next to Wilke’s zoo. It was where all the townsfolk swam and were occasionally baptized.
“One day, we children were out at the Tickey Dam when a man came running up and shouting that the lions had escaped,” she says.
“Most of the children bolted into the changing room and they locked the door. A rather stout lady and I were stuck outside. A policeman came to our rescue. He bent over so we could jump on his back and up to the roof.”
It’s a mental image that remains: with a big male lion approaching fast, a brave policeman offers his back as a springboard and a short, fat lady in a pencil skirt vaults up and onto the roof with the speed of an Olympic athlete.
Gina was even present at the famous ‘lion wedding’.
“One of the lions roared at the presiding magistrate so he decided to conduct the service from outside the cage,” she says.