(Gathering of family and friends for Marco Peters will be held 2-4 p.m., May 18 at the Robert Toale & Sons Funeral Home, 1221 53rd Ave. E., Bradenton)
In December, Myakka City's Marco Peters was thrilled to open his Sarasota Sea Lion Preserve to the public, allowing the community to meet his beloved animals face-to-face.
But Peters died at home on May 10, on the Singletary Road property that also was home to his 23 sea lions. He was 57.
Peters, a native of a Holland circus family who came to the United States to perform, built his reputation nationwide for his sea lion touring show, Sea Lion Splash. He formed its parent company, Squalus, in 1998 when he began touring.
Peters and his brother, Philip, had signed a contract with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1985 to appear on their Wheel of Death. They were discovered during their tours of Europe.
An 1988 article in the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., described how Marco Peters, who had been training lions and tigers, got the idea for the Wheel of Death.
"I was passing a school playground with my brother. 'We saw this construction with two wheels and a connecting axle. There were two seats, one in each wheel and if you moved around at all, the whole thing would spin. I thought if we could only make this dangerous by walking on the outside of it, we'd be able to convert it into some new kind of circus act.'"
The brothers not only walked outside it, but they did it with the wheels suspended 60 feet above the circus floor. Eventually, Marco Peters put Bengal tigers inside each wheel.
Besides landing the circus contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Peters met the love of his life, Stefi Slavova, who was a fifth generation equine circus performer.
On May 13, Slavova, who ran the Sarasota Sea Lion Preserve with Peters, was making funeral arrangements and was still too distraught to talk about Peters' death or the preserve's future.
But a 2015 article in the Daily Orange (Syracuse University's student newspaper) told of their relationship.
“We met and you know how it goes, love and everything,” Peters said in the article. “It was perfect because she was from a circus family as well. When we’d go on the road she’d never ask ‘Oh, why is there no air conditioning?’ Well, the animals need the air conditioning and not us. She understands that.”
Both Peters and Slavova were having success with the circus in the 1980s, but Marco Peters began worrying about his future when he was doing circus acts in the 1990s.
"When you get into your 30s in the circus, it's like a football or baseball player, you're done," he told the East County Observer in January.
So he formed Squalus and began with a traveling shark exhibit before switching to sea lions.
In 2007, Peters and Slavova took Sea Lion Splash to Tucson, Ariz., and he talked with the Arizona Daily Star about the difference between training lions and tigers, as opposed to sea lions.
"They're complete opposites," he said in a Star article. "I mean there's always an element of danger with any animal you train, but when you're working with a tiger or lion, if you're not attentive it could be your last second. Of course, sea lions can bite, but you won't die from it. What's different is sea lions do things by themselves. You train them with positive reinforcement using voice commands and give them toys if they do something good. (And) you can teach an old sea lion new tricks. The worst thing you can do is teach them nothing. You need to stimulate them all the time. For them, it's fantastic. They have all this new stuff to learn and show off."
Slavova told the Observer in January every trainer and employee at the Sarasota Sea Lion Preserve was part of one, big family.
She talked of their love of the Sea Lions in the 2015 Daily Orange article.
“You have to have the love for animals,” Slavova said. “You have to be able to dedicate basically your life, because I always say these animals don’t choose. They love us no matter what. They don’t care if I come here with makeup or anything. You just have to be willing to dedicate your life to the animals.”
Peters told the East County Observer in January that his love of the preserve was obvious.
"I am the producer, the guy who does the payroll, and the guy who drives the truck," he said. "It is beautiful here, and this is the way it always has been, how you see it now. It always will be like this. I work here, and I live here."
Funeral arrangements are pending. Cause of death was not given.