what it’s like to kiss a tiger...
...what it’s like to put your head in a tiger’s mouth, how to carry a three-hundred-pound cat on your shoulders and how he mixed up leopards and lovely girls without either getting a scratch
AS FAR as I know I am the only man alive who has put his head in a tiger’s mouth. In my time with circuses in Europe and North America I have trained more than fifty tigers but Maouzi, a Bengal aristocrat, was the only one who let me inspect his teeth at such close quarters.
The trick is less risky with a lion, for tigers in general are more intelligent and more apt to take offense than lions. I do no discourtesy to lions when I say this. They would agree, I am sure, that a tiger, even when trained, is still mysterious, still wild and capable of unforeseeable reactions.
I would approach Maouzi and lay my cheek against his muzzle. If he were in a playful mood, he would lick my cheek like an affectionate dog to show his contentment. My skin would burn under his tongue, which was as rough as a file (a tiger’s kiss is a strange sensation), and I would move away quickly. Maouzi never felt slighted, however, but, gentle as a pony, would allow himself to be my mount. Finally, I opened his jaws very slowly and put my head between them.
But I was not content; I meant to get more from the royal Maouzi. At the Circus Schumann in Berlin I had seen the tamer Julius Seeth take a few steps in the ring with a lioness on his shoulders. I was not sure if this were possible with a tiger, but how could I resist a try? At the hundredth attempt, ten days later, I had my answer. I could walk
anywhere in the cage with him hanging on around my ears and both of us were completely at ease.
There is another specialty I remember when I look back on the days I worked with a princely group of three large Siberian tigers and four smaller Bengals, of which Maouzi was one. I should not advise anyone to try it, but I have many times kissed an angry tiger on his muzzle. That tiger was Radja.
One morning I was walking about the cage with Maouzi around my neck. Radja left his place without permission. The next day he did the same thing and I gave him a sound lash on his hindquarters. He leaped at me. I let him have the butt of my whip on his muzzle. He roared terribly and returned to his place. Now I tried to soothe him, murmuring gently the “Pfrr. . . Pfrr” that all cats understand. His eyes softened, his fur settled down and he responded to my advances with one or two unmistakable “pfrrs.” We were friends again. I remained facing him and stroked his nose with the butt of my whip. Soon this became a routine part of the act. Always he would stretch his head toward me for caresses. Little by little the distance between our heads lessened. One day we were nose to nose, less than twelve inches apart. I moved forward and kissed him on his moist, salty muzzle.
To become a good cat trainer there is, properly speaking, no secret. I say “trainer” and not “tamer” advisedly, for all trainers are tamers but few tamers may also claim the title of trainer. A
true trainer must possess certain essential qualities.
The first, and to my mind the most important, is knowledge of animal psychology. It is absolutely essential to learn to understand each cat, not to be mistaken in the character of any of them, to observe their friendliness and animosities and, finally, to know how to exploit this knowledge for the success of the act you plan. In addition, one must be perceptive enough to discover as rapidly as possible what I call the “keys” to training. Each type of animal has well-defined characteristics, and therefore the natural disposition of each must be studied so that it may be used to advantage. One must find the special “key” to each and use it to make the animal understand exactly what is required of him.
Contrary to the general belief, courage is the least important quality. I have taught a score or more trainers, men and women, and among them I have encountered young braggarts who prided themselves on their courage. They have always made me nervous, and they have generally ended their careers in the hospital. I have never considered caution as anything but a virtue.
Two questions have been asked me hundreds of times: “How do you train a wild animal to cross the cage on steel cables?” and “How do you make a lion or tiger walk on a ball?” Here, for the benefit of those who might like to try these tricks, are the recipes.
Patient preliminary training is necessary to make
a cat. into a rope walker, or, more exactly, to teach a cat to cross the cage on two steel cables. In the beginning two wooden bars, one and a half inches wide and two inches thick, are fixed across two stools set four or five yards apart. The bars are three feet from the ground. The cat is started from the first stool and an attempt is made to get him to cross the improvised bridge. One cat in ten will agree to venture onto the bars. The others are eliminated. When the trainer has chosen his subject, he encourages the cat to move along the bars by holding a piece of meat on a cane in front of him as he advances. On the far stool a substantial piece of meat awaits the animal as his reward. The cat soon crosses the four or five yards beween the stools without apprehension. The first phase of the training is then complete.
The width of the bars is then decreased and the cables are stretched over them with the steel touching the wood. During the crossing from stool to stool the cat feels the bite of the cable under his paws. It is essential that he get used to this sensation, and this takes some days.
The third phase aims at cutting out the contact with the wooden bars. With the aid of wedges the cables are stretched two or three inches above the bars. For the first two or three steps the cat feels only the cable beneath his paws. He wants to jump down but his weight makes the cable give and it touches the wood. The animal regains his
confidence and continues his crossing. At each successive training period the cable is raised a few inches, which compels the cat to take more steps to gain the reassuring contact of the wood. Finally, the steel cable does not touch the wooden bars at all and the cat will still complete his journey.
During the fourth and final phase the wooden bars are removed ent irely and the height of thestools is gradually raised. My lions and tigers, when trained in the art of rope walking, crossed a cable that was ten feet from the ground.
The second trick, that of making a cat walk on a ball, involves a training that takes longer and is infinitely more complicated.
First of all, a hollow wooden ball is placed on two parallel bars fifteen inches apart. An iron spindle is passed through the sphere from side to side. The ends of the spindle are tied to the prongs of a sixfoot fork, which are semicircular to fit the sphere. The sphere can now turn with the spindle as its axis, but its movements depend on the trainer’s assistant who pushes or pulls the ball on the rails.
Two or three animals who show a natural disposition to get onto the big ball must then be selected. If the animal can balance on it at all he is immediately rewarded with a piece of meat at the end of the training stick. When the cat has acquired confidence and is content to remain there indefinitely, the assistant moves the sphere a few inches. Inevitably the
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What It’s Like to Kiss a Tiger
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cat jumps to the ground. For weeks, ten or fifteen times a day, the same start has to be made. The cat eventually gets used to the moving object and finds that if he stays on it, he is immediately rewarded with a piece of meat.
Once this progress is made—and it will take a month of daily training to do it—the assistant pushes the ball a little farther each day, and gradually the cat walks backward as the ball rolls forward. This is the time to dispense with the fork. Now comes the main difficulty. As soon as the cat feels the ball moving away from beneath his paws, he takes a jump that sends the ball flying off the rails, since it is no longer steadied by the fork. This will happen ten or twenty times. The trainer must stand close to the cat to guide the animal with the meat-laden stick just in front of the jaws and to touch the paws lightly with the butt of the whip. In this way he will keep the cat on the free ball and will succeed finally in leading it on its journey along twenty feet of rail.
A good sense of balance in a cat is an invaluable help to a trainer. It was essential in the training of my old friend, the tiger Maouzi, when I set about teaching him how to ride around the ring on my shoulders. Actually, when I set out on this experiment the trick was new to both of us and we both had to learn how to go about it.
Every morning for a week, in an effort to start his training in this respect, I made him get on two stools far enough apart so that in profile Maouzi looked like a living bridge of fur. I tried to lift him on my forearms, passing them beneath his belly. Each time he heaved a deep ominous sigh, and, obviously uncomfortable, half tried to bite, though he showed no personal ill feeling. At that time Maouzi weighed some three hundred pounds, and I knew that it would be impossible to lift him in my arms. The only solution was to take him on my shoulders.
Toward this end, after he had made his bridge, I slipped a noose around his neck. At the other end of the rope was an assistant, with instructions to pull hard if the tiger attempted to bite me.
I took special precautions of this sort because I was taking into account the fact that, while I was ducking under his belly, Maouzi could seize my head in his jaws before I could even see his attack coming.
The lasso made me safe from his teeth, but I could find no protection against his claws. I bent my knees and, with my head and shoulders under Maouzi’s belly, reached up to grasp the loose skin of his neck. Then, avoiding any rough or sudden movement, I began to straighten myself. Maouzi gave a long snarl as his forepaws left the stool. The deadly paws fell heavily against my side but fortunately he did not put his claws out. I remained in this crouching position for several seconds. Maouzi half balanced across my shoulders, his forepaws dangling, his hind paws still on the stool. I had certainly not found the ideal position. If I tried to stand upright, I felt that the tiger would slide down my back. Going almost to my knees, I managed to get Maouzi’s paws back on the first stool and to release myself.
My tiger, who had nearly lost his balance, appeared nervous and I had to soothe him for quite a while before
I judged him ready for another try. I lifted his forepaws first, this time taking one of his hindpaws in my left hand. Straightening suddenly, I found myself completely upright, with Maouzi on my shoulders.
The deep sigh he heaved seemed to last for an eternity, but no threatening movements followed. The tiger was barely on my shoulders before I felt his heavy, almost inert body sliding backward. Fearful of falling, Maouzi snarled again and put out his claws to save himself. One paw tore my trousers to shreds and the other lacerated my thigh. At once I bent my knees, then straightened quickly and flung three hundred pounds of tiger over my head. I was free.
The next day I tried a bolder approach. Once underneath Maouzi, I put my head very close to his so that the weight of his body, as it hung on my shoulders, came from the chest rather than the belly. This was obviously an improvement, for when I lifted him in this new way Mgouzi’s sigh was barely audible. I kept him on my shoulders for about ten seconds, and when I noticed the first signs of sliding 1
Excuse Him, Please
His turns, both left and right, are slow;
He signals well, does nothing wrong. By little signs like these we know
The chap has not been driving long.
LEONARD K. SCHIFF
heaved him over my head without waiting for the previous day’s damage.
Ten days later, both Maouzi and I had the trick down pat and the crowds were delighted with our piggy-back routine.
Like the cats he trains, the trainer is always learning new tricks. I had been working with a lion named Caesar. In the act that I had planned, I was to put my head in his mouth, but the thought that there was nothing to prevent him from closing his jaws while my head was between his teeth chilled me. One night I made an experiment in an effort to get him to hold his mouth open for some time so that the spectators could have a good glimpse of his enormous teeth. The moment he tried to close his jaws, 1 used my thumbs to press the sides of his thick lips over his teeth. Caesar realized immediately that he could not close his mouth without biting his own lips, and so he reopened his jaws with a growl. As long as I kept up a light pressure with my thumbs, he kept his mouth open, growling continuously.
But training wild animals is not always such a simple matter. Men have died learning this. There was a trainer named Mollier, a gentle fellow, a trifle indolent but obliviöus to fear or to danger. We were in Spain when I decided to let him work with my tigers. I warned him particularly that three of the cats were especially dangerous and that he should never take his eyes off’ them.
“Don’t worry,” he said, sailing. "Nothing will happen to me. When I’m alone in the cage, on my own, I’ll be on my guard.”
"Don’t drive the animals,” I told him. "Take the act quietly. Later, when you have them well in hand, you’ll be able to allow yourself a few capers.” I opened the door and let him into the cage. He moved the animals from their first pyramid, and since
everything seemed to be going perfectly I fastened the door, which I had been holding partly open, ready to intervene. Things are going well, I thought. Mollier listens to what he’s told. He’ll make a good tamer. I lighted a cigarette. I looked up from the match to see Bengali, one of the dangerous trio, pad silently down from his place and make a sudden spring toward Mollier, whose back was turned to him.
I gave a cry, but it was too late. Bengali had seized Mollier by the left leg and was dragging him among the other tigers. I dashed into the cage empty-handed and ran to the front, shouting, "Bengali! To your place!” The moment I arrived behind him, Bengali, hearing my voice, let go and withdrew a few paces. The six other tigers by this time had come down from their places and were roaming around us. Painfully, Mollier raised himself from the ground.
In the second that followed, Mollier’s fate was decided. Bengali’s attack had only been delayed. Mollier still had his whip and his stick in his hands and could have defended himself, or tried to. But he had an instant of panic which cost him his life. Instead of turning to face Bengali—which he could have done even though he was wounded— Mollier lost control of himself. He came hopping toward me on one foot, crying, "Save me!” At that moment Bengali reared on his hind paws and leaped again. Tamer and tiger fell at my feet. Bengali’s teeth were in the nape of Mollier’s neck. With another stool I struck the tiger furiously on the head, and he let go. But the terrible damage had been done.
“The Tiger Has Killed Me”
I finally succeeded in getting the tigers to one end of the cage and, taking hold of Mollier beneath the arms, got him as far as the door. Bengali, roaring, had sprung at us once more. I upset the big pyramid, blocking the tiger’s charge, and then, whip and stick in hand, forced Bengali back. It was only then that I was able to drag Mollier out of the cage.
After a few moments he gained consciousness, opened his eyes and murmured a few incomprehensible words. He held his bloodstained head in his hands and said, "He’s killed me. I felt everything crack.”
Mollier did not speak again.
After Mollier’s tragic death I felt that I was the only man who should face Bengali. It would be inexact to say that I was afraid that day, for if I had been genuinely afraid I would not have worked the tigers at all, especially Bengali, six hours after Mollier’s death. But I cannot claim to have felt no apprehension.
I was going to avenge Mollier. No sooner was I in the cage than I "placed” the tigers so vigorously that they understood my intentions at once. I stayed on my guard, however,knowing from experience that a cat lies in wait for an opportunity to repeat an aggressive act. I could not punish Bengali for the crime he had committed that morning, since he would not have understood such a delayed punishment. My plan was to tempt the tiger and to invite his attack.
A few paces away from Bengali, I turned my back to him, watching him from the corner of my eye. I was right: the opportunity looked good to him. He still remembered his bloody victory of the morning. He came down from his place and leaped at me, trying to catch me from behind. I turned swiftly and stopped him a yard away with a heavy blow of my club. I admit I was glad. Caught in the act, Bengali was not to
escape punishment. It was my turn to be brutal, and brutal I was.
All the clubs I had left in the cage were broken, one by one, on Bengali’s head, and lashes came down on him like an avalanche, each cutting deep into the tiger’s shining coat. I continued this treatment for two or three minutes until he took refuge in the corner of the cage. We were both out of breath, and Bengali looked as though he understood at last that his attack on his trainer liad been a mistake. He had received his punishment at exactly the right moment. He understood the lesson perfectly, so well that when 1 turned my back on him again that very evening, deliberately prolonging the delay, he did not stir from his place.
But two years later Bengali was to kill again. This time his victim was a trainer named Vaniek, a Polish hoy. I was in bed at the time with congestion of the lungs. From my room, listening to the words of command and the cracking of the whip, I followed the different stages of the act from day to day and was able to judge the progress made. Our circus was preparing to move out of town. Vaniek went into the cage for a final rehearsal with the tigers.
When 1 heard the animals come in I thought 1 noticed some unusual cracks of the whip. 1 reasoned that the tigers had started a fight among themselves. Then a frightful, agonizing clamor arose. It seemed to last an eternity. I stmt a boy to the cage for news. He came running back, deathly pale.
"Vaniek’s let himself get caught,” he gasped. "There’s no one to get him out.”
Shivering with fever, I managed to take a few steps. As I heard a salvo of revolver shots I fell in a faint at the bottom of the stairs.
The Night the Cats Escaped
Later. I learned the details of Vaniek’s death, for he was killed that day. Bengali had repeated the deadly attack he had made on Mollier. The cage boy had shouted as Bengali moved in from behind. Vaniek turned around, the boy fired a revolver. But it was too late. Vaniek got a paw in the face, fell to the ground and was half devoured in -the cage.
I suspect that a tragedy of this sort only heightens the secret fear most people share when they watch wild animals at a circus or a zoo and wonder what would happen if, somehow, those animals suddenly broke loose. On a night in May 1925 that fear developed ~into reality for the people of the small French town of Saint-Amand.
That was the night eleven lions and tigers escaped into the very centre of town when a workman neglected to close a cage door. At the news of the breakout, I rushed into the town square to find a terror-stricken crowd shouting and running in all directions.
One tiger, frightened and confused by the commotion, had taken cover under a wagon. He was quickly cornered and caged. Another, I was told, had gone into a café. I rushed to the scene. One of the café’s big windows was shattered and there was complete pandemonium as its door spun like a top, casting forth men and women yelling in terror. When I got into the now almost empty café all the tables were overturned and most of the chairs broken. At the back, breathless but nonchalant, a lion paced and roared. I recognized Caesar.
In spite of his flashing paws and bared teeth I was able to get a running noose around his neck. A cage boy, trying to get a second lasso around him, was ripped in the shoulder and
collapsed, his body covered with blood. At last we were able to truss Caesar securely enough to drag him into the street, where a cage from the circus waited to take him home.
The dangerous Nero was hiding in an ironmonger’s shop, and the lioness Nelly had gone through the window of a modiste shop. A tigress had sprung through the window of a butcher’s store and another snarling tiger landed in the parlor of a pair of newlyweds who were just on the point of going upstairs to bed. They catapulted up the stairs and locked the door after them. We
ran a ladder to their window and brought them down. The tiger remained inside.
Four lions had been sighted together three quarters of a mile away. It took us over an hour to get four or five lassos around each of them. Then we raced back to town, anxious to check the newlyweds’ sector as we went by. I can still hear the bride’s plaintive voice as she broke into our discussion of strategy: "Do you know, monsieur, if Armand and I are going to spend all of our wedding night in the street?”
It was three in the morning. I went
into the shop where Nero was hiding. Among some casks I saw a curious object, small, dark and shaped like a curtain tassel. It was the pompon of a lion’s tail. I gave it a sharp pull— and Nero leaped through the only window still intaçt and vanished into the night. The lioness Fanfare scuttled out after him. We followed them for a mile. Nero raced into the Saint-Amand school and Fanfare took refuge across a canal.
I returned once more to the newlyweds. My tiger, to give him credit, behaved like a gentleman. At the first
prod from my fork, he left the upper passage of the house, ran to the dining room and then into his cage awaiting him at the door.
My wrist watch showed five o’clock. I expressed my regrets to the young couple. As we drove away, the young husband called down from the window. "We’ll remember this night for the rest of our lives!”
A single blow from the paw of the tigress in the butcher’s tore my boots and laid my knee open, but then she entered her cage without further resistance. She was fat with hams and
pork roasts. The butcher presented his bill in the morning. At the modiste’s, Nelly left the sofa on which she was stretched, and which her claws had left in tatters, miaowed and allowed herself to be lassoed and caged.
Out at the Saint-Amand school again, I confronted Nero on a flight of stairs. His attacks were particularly savage. I called to the cage boys to bring me two buckets of cold water. I seized one of the buckets and flung it at the lion. The cold water, together with the crashing of the bucket as it rolled down the stairs, surprised him. He
hurled himself toward the ground floor and into the waiting cage like a thunderbolt.
We found Fanfare hiding in the bushes by the canal. In the damp and dark silence I stood for a moment to plan my next move. Suddenly, she was springing at my throat. I fought her off with my fork. She repeated this plunging attack many times in the next fifteen minutes, and half an hour later she was still defying us.
I spoke to her gently. "Fanfare! Ou-ah! Come on, Fanfare. Come kiss your master. Ou-ah-ah.”
She replied with two or three tentative "ou-ahs.” I was two yards from her. She stretched out her neck and then, a little shyly, came to me like a kitten. She rubbed herself against me, nearly knocking me over. I stood beside the open cage door. Tempted by the fresh straw, she went joyfully into the cage and rolled in her own bed again.
Midday sounded from the church of Saint-Amand.
The only other time any animal of mine escaped happened fifteen years later—in Madison Square Garden, of all places. Sure that war was inevitable I had accepted a contract from John Ringling North, manager of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in the United States, and left Europe without delay.
The opening at Madison Square Garden was scheduled for the fourth of April. I had my dress rehearsal in the presence of "a select few” as John Ringling North had suggested. I was disagreeably surprised to see over a thousand guests around the ring, with a score of photographers and a battalion of reporters clamoring for interviews.
I went to the centre cage and had my team of magnificent leopards sent in. Terrified by the noise and confusion, the new surroundings, the music and the hundreds of spotlights blinding them, the animals were exceedingly nervous and I had endless trouble getting them in their places.
One of the black leopards attacked me savagely and I barely escaped being hooked. All at once, with the speed of lightning, an Indian leopard called Bombay leaped to the top of the cage. The overhead net had been badly fitted by the circus hands and, in less time than it takes to write this, the leopard slipped between the bars and net and was out of the cage.
He crouched for a moment, then spotted a gangway and rushed up it. There was a ludicrous panic. The privileged guests took to their heels by the hundreds. I was in the cage with all the cats; there was no question of my taking part in the chase. My assistants went after Bombay with forks, ropes and nets, cornered him in a corridor, and caught him in no time. Tied with lassos, he was deposited at the entrance of the tunnel. There, freed from his restraints, he was made to enter the cage again and went grumbling to his place, breathless and slightly sheepish. The spectators now thought this a first-class prologue. Little by little they trickled back and once again the photographers’ bulbs flashed.
The staging we had planned for thé show was dramatic. Three acts would work simultaneously in the three rings, the effect to be heightened by blackouts and concealed lighting. Synchronization was of prime importance and the production problems were particularly difficult, for I intended to give the New York audience an absolutely novel performance. All the properties, the apparatus, pyramids and pedestals on which I grouped my cats had a horizontal surface of unbreakable glass. There were lights of one-thousand-watt strength, like searchlights, inside each one, and these when turned on would illuminate the cats from below.
Each act consisted of five routines, each routine ending in an ensemble pose. All the animals therefore had to work together to within two seconds for the grand finale. Then the circus would be plunged into total darkneas until the searchlights in the apparatus suddenly flooded the groups of cats with light. It was a completely novel act and, I felt, genuinely impressive. The New York crowds agreed.
Three years of touring in North
America went by, during which I made a collecting foray into the mountains of Colorado that netted a fully grown puma with its two cubs, a couple of lynxes and other animals. I drove them back to winter headquarters in Florida in a special trailer behind my car.
I was sixty and wanted to retire. Robert Ringling, the new manager of the circus, had finally agreed to buy my animals, but only if I succeeded in producing a certain act for the coming season. It was one that I had suggested, since I knew our new manager could scarcely imagine a circus act without girls and dancing. It was to be a new and mixed group: a dozen leopards— and a dozen girls.
The girls did not come to our training sessions for a longtime. Their roles were played by my assistants and cage boys who wore pink tights for the occasion. I must admit that these sessions grew rather hilarious.
When perfection was attained Ringling proudly appeared with his battalion of girls. They gathered around me, looking a little pale and plying me with questions: "How shall we begin?” "What should I do if the animals start to fight?”
I replied calmly, "Do just what I tell you and nothing will happen. If an animal springs at you, it is up to me to stop him and that will be done before he gets to you. If the leopards fight, don’t move. It’s up to me to separate them. The act has been trained with men. All you have to do is take their places and look more graceful than they did, which won’t be difficult.”
There was a silence as the girls digested what I had said. I ordered the animals sent in and went alone into the cage to "place” each leopard on its seat. Then one of my tamers took over the animals. I left the cage and took one of the dancers by the hand.
"You’re first, Pat,” I said, and without giving her time to think I took her into the cage with me. Hand in hand we strolled in front of the leopards who sat motionless a few yards away. Her hand trembled slightly but Pat had real courage. The leopards were accustomed to seeing several people in the cage and seemed undisturbed. When I went nearer, two or three of them eyed Pat with much interest and got whacks on the head to remind them that it was I, not the dancers, whom they were to watch. After ten minutes’ strolling I stationed Pat at the back of the cage, gave her a strong stick to hold, and left her under the supervision of one of my assistants.
Going to the door, I told a dancer named Verena that she was to be next. After a few steps she was frightened.
"All your animals are staring at me,” she said. "They’re going to spring at me.”
I reassured her, swearing that wild animals had an aesthetic appreciation of beauty. She finally made the walk with me in front of the animals and, gradually regaining confidence, went to join Pat.
On the second attempt each of the two girls was posted next to a man and in effect understudied him. At the third attempt the girls played the parts themselves and the cats worked without taking any notice of them.
The next day there were four girls. Little by little the men gallantly gave up their places. Two routines were mastered, then three, and finally the whole act. We called it The Beauties and the Beasts, and the act was an enormous success.
I had completed my agreement. ★
This is an excerpt from M. Court's memoirs, My Life With The Big Cats, to be published later by Simon and Schuster Inc.