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Tiger flees circus

Chaos in Qns. as beast roams wild

Apollo escaped into Queens park yesterday
It could have been a cat-astrophe.

A tiger escaped from a circus in Queens yesterday, taking a mile-long romp through Forest Park and local streets, scattering screaming people in his wake and causing two traffic accidents.

But after a half-hour of freedom, the 450-pound white Bengal named Apollo was simply lured back into his cage with a juicy chunk of raw meat.

"Me and my wife never ran so fast in all our lives," said Luis Martinez, 45, a neighborhood resident who had a too-close encounter with the big cat.

"We found an open door to a private house and ran in. I was in shock. It was incredible."

The tiger got loose from the New Cole Brothers Circus, which had set up in the Forest Park bandshell parking lot on Woodhaven Blvd., when workers tried to transfer him from a large cage to a smaller one on wheels in the parking lot, police said.

A wheel chock moved and the small cage rolled far enough to create an opening for Apollo, who was to be featured at the 1:30 p.m. performance under the big top.

The cat hit the ground running, with panicked circus workers, including trainer Cheryl Haddad, trailing behind as he trotted across the park's crowded lawn.

"It's like, you know, you could see a big dog run by, but a live tiger on the move! It was awesome!" said Mary Mason, 59, of Crown Heights, one of more than 100 members of the Berean Baptist Church of Brooklyn at their annual choir picnic in the park.

"A lady was sitting on the grass and the tiger trotted right past her, just a few feet away," Mason said. "The trainer was running right behind him with her wand, saying, 'Stop! Stop!' The tiger turned around and looked at her as if to say, 'Are you serious?'"

"Even the clowns were running after him," said Deborah Faulk, 48, another church member. "There was a guy with a clown nose and big shoes running after him. I don't know what he would have done if he'd caught him."

Raynalda Millord, 36, was celebrating her daughter's first birthday nearby. "There was even a guy with raw meat running behind the tiger," she said. "It was just crazy."

The majestic beast loped briefly along the Jackie Robinson Parkway, triggering two smashups, one involving three cars and the other two, on the westbound side. Five people were taken to Jamaica Hospital with minor injuries.

Martinez, a microbiologist who lives at Myrtle Ave. and 88th Lane, was enjoying the afternoon with his wife, Nina, when they heard the crashes. "We looked down from the overpass, and there was a guy running and waving his hands, yelling for people to get out of the way," Martinez said.

But then the tiger went up a slope toward the Martinezes. "We turned around and there was a tiger coming after us. He was about 10 feet away, and he was big, with white, black and gray stripes," Martinez said.

By this time, there were police helicopters overhead, and patrol cars converging on the park. Cops and circus workers surrounded the big cat on 88th Lane.

"He was a beautiful animal. But I think he was exhausted. He was tired of running," said witness Alice Douglas.

Circus President John Pugh said he loaded a tranquilizer gun himself, but the weapon proved unnecessary.

A trainer with some raw meat lured Apollo into a cage - and his great adventure in the concrete jungle was over.

"The tiger just walked in," Pugh said. "You could see it on his face: 'Thank God I'm home.'" Pugh said it was unlikely Apollo would have attacked any passersby because he was raised by humans.

"But make no mistake," he added. "These tigers have all their claws and teeth. They're full tiger."

None of the tigers performed in yesterday afternoon's show, and Pugh said they will stay in their cages until they calm down. The circus is scheduled to end its weeklong run in the park with three shows today.

"We've never had this happen before," he said. "I don't want this to happen again."

Yesterday's tiger scare wasn't the first time wild animals have escaped from a traveling circus in Queens.

On July 10, 1995, two elephants ran amok in midperformance at the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, also in Forest Park, touching off a stampede in which 12 people were slightly injured.

The other tiger making news in the city was Ming, the 200-pound Bengal-Siberian cat found in a Bronx public housing project apartment last summer.

Originally published on August 1, 2004

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