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Lion Tamers

“You never can trust a cat.”  Clyde Beatty
“You never can trust a cat...and you are never careless…A trainer’s life depends on how well he knows his animals.”  This was Clyde Beatty’s philosophy as a circus lion tamer and animal trainer. Working with cats is always dangerous for those who break, train, show or “style,” feed and care for the cats. Nobody ever really tames or domesticates cats. Professionals can work with cats, show or style them, train them individually to perform various tricks, but can never tame them completely.

“Lion taming” and “lion tamer” are both misnomers. A more appropriate term is “animal trainer,” which is not the same as an “animal breaker.” A “breaker” does not break an animal’s spirit, but teaches it to tolerate proximity to a human (the breaker), recognize the breaker’s voice and act on commands.  Most breakers can and do train animals.  A breaker needs “exceptional concentration” to focus on the animal and block out extraneous information and sounds. “Trainers,” do not break animals, but work with animals which are already broken.  “Training” is defined here as “… bridging the gap between what you want the animal to do and getting him to do it. It is the language that you use to talk to animals if you want them to do something. An animal is not trained unless it will do basic behaviors regularly and repeatedly without trouble.” 

In the past, performance animals were sometimes cruelly treated.  Kinder treatment and training of animals began in circus history with Carl Hagenbeck. Today’s animal trainers use a system of rewards so the animals will enjoy performing in an act that shows mutual respect for trainer and cats. Among the modern experts advocating positive reward training is Patricia White. Today’s trainers also recognize that each animal is an individual. The types of cats used in circus and show business today usually include jaguars, leopards, tigers, cougars, and lions.


The first major American animal trainer to become an international celebrity was Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1811-1865). He performed with a cage of wild animals in Richmond Hill Theatre, NY, in 1833.  Van Amburgh “represented the complete dominance of man over untamed nature.” This type of demonstration of lion taming remained popular until Clyde Beatty died in 1965. Shortly afterwards, the social attitude of the 1970s changed the audiences’ desire into an expectation of more gentle, European style cat acts.


Mabel Stark is often recognized as the first major women tiger tamer and trainer, but that honor actually belongs to Rose Flanders Bascom (1880-1915), the first American woman lion tamer who performed in the early 1900s. Rose died of an infection after being clawed by a lion.  However, Mabel Stark is considered the premier woman tiger trainer of the 1920s.


Patricia White-Clare:

Patricia “Pat” White grew up in Clare.  She is the only circus person in her family. In 1973, Pat graduated from Clare High School.  She attended Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo. During the school year, Ringling Brothers Circus performed at Reid Fieldhouse at WMU. Pat had always enjoyed animals and performing in theater and had considered becoming a veterinarian, but was concerned about caring for sick and injured animals. As Pat watched Wolfgang Holtzmeir perform with 21 lions in the ring she realized “…there’s the ideal combination of both my interests; I could work with animals and perform.” 

Pat worked at Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH during the summer of 1974 to learn about working with animals.  When the show moved to FL for the winter, Pat did, too, and worked for Jungle Larry [Tetzlaff] at the African Safari. In 3.5 years, Pat learned how to work with and care for chimps, elephants and cats, as well as how to handle other exotic performance animals.

In the summer of 1977 Pat married trainer Roy Wells.  She worked later in1977 for John Cuneo’s Hawthorne Circus Corporation.  The next year, Pat and husband moved to Marineland and Game Farm in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where her husband worked the cat act. In eastern Canada in 1979, Pat worked a mixed act of three tigers, three leopards, a cougar and a jaguar. This was Pat’s first experience in the ring with cats.  Pat and her husband then went to work with Gee Gee Engesser on Cirque International in 1980. Here Roy worked the elephants and Pat the pony drill. Pat realized she loved cats and spent all her spare time with them.
From February 1981 until the beginning of 1992 Pat worked the cat act for Carson and Barnes Circus, a circus she still loves. 

At one point Pat was attacked through a cage by a young cat. The incident lasted five seconds, but she needed help to escape and suffered back injuries, a tiger tooth in her arm, lacerations, scars on her stomach, her left nostril was ripped and the doctors thought her lung was punctured. Fortunately everything healed. Pat was “very, very angry” with herself that after thirteen years of working with cats she had let her guard down. She did not take that particular cat home with her.

Pat learned how to work cats as her career continued. She does not recommend this as the safe way to learn about circus cats. Today’s politically correct term for tricks is now “behaviors.”  Pat’s believes each cat is an individual. Some she bonded with quicker than others, some learned a behavior faster than others, some were smarter, some dumber than others; but each has its own personality.

One of Pat’s favorite lions was Rex, with whom she developed a very close bond. As Pat says “It’s a very difficult thing to explain; it goes way beyond a trainer-trainee, teacher-pupil sort of thing; it becomes very spiritual, it really does. Once that begins to happen, there’s no stopping it.” Josip Marcan trained Rex to allow Josip to put his head in Rex’s mouth in the ring. Pat and Rex performed this behavior for ten years, she estimates at least 5,000 times. While this particular behavior was a crowd favorite, it was not what Pat liked to perform.  She “wanted to show the grace and beauty and the agility of the cats.” 

For Pat, teaching a cat a specific behavior begins by an unspoken understanding that the trainer is in charge.  Each group of animals has established a pecking order and she is the top of it.  Pat does not break their spirit, believing that causes a poor working relationship and a defeated animal. Nor does she abuse or behave in a hostile manner towards the animals. There are many variables involved in the training of a cat to perform a behavior; including their temperament, willingness, how they interact with other animals and each particular situation.

Pat found lions easier to work with than tigers, but liked the look of a mixed act consisting of both lions and tigers.  In her career, Pat also worked with three elephants on Carson and Barnes (C&B) Circus.          
In 1990, Pat and her son, Nick, moved to Cody, Wyoming, where she worked in an art foundry and sculpted.  In February 1993 she returned to circus work on the Tiger Show and Yano Circus in Japan.  After Japan, Pat joined the Boswell show in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, where she lives.


Clyde Beatty:

Clyde Beatty (1903-1965) is the man whose showmanship and pith helmet epitomized the classic American lion tamer fighting act for most of the twentieth century.   Beatty is also the lion tamer most associated in MI with the history of the Detroit Shrine Circus, with which he started performing in 1926. He performed in Detroit almost every year between his debut in1926 and his last Detroit performance in 1963, and was the major star of the Moslem Circus in Detroit.

Once, in Detroit, Beatty had to recapture an escaped tiger, Gracie.  Beatty started in the hotel basement where the cages were stored to verify how many cats were loose and then walked up to the fifth floor where he found her. He chased Gracie down a hall, into a stairwell, down another hall, and into a bedroom, where she attacked him, and they nearly destroyed the room. After hitting her a few times with padding from a table, Gracie surrendered, ran down the stairs, and into her cage. Beatty later admitted it was “the toughest tilt he’d ever had with any animal.”

Beatty began his circus career cleaning animal cages with the Howe’s Great London and Van Amburgh’s Wild Animal Circus at the age of 18 in 1921.  In 1922 he worked a polar bear act for the Gollmar Bros. Circus. In 1923 he had an act of 14 polar bears and was first listed in the route book.  Also in 1923, Beatty met Peter Taylor, a great cat trainer, to whom Beatty later credited his own showmanship. This was the beginning of 42 continuous seasons of Beatty working as a wild animal trainer.

From 1925 to 1935 Beatty worked for Hagenbeck-Wallace.  He performed with his polar bears and a mixed cat act in 1925.  A large mixed cat act became Beatty’s signature act.  He concentrated on the cat acts in 1926. In 1926 and 1927 he was featured as “America’s youngest and most fearless wild animal trainer.”  Beatty had the largest mixed cat act in history; 28 lions and tigers in 1927, 30 in 1929, and 40 in 1930.
Like Van Amburgh, Beatty demonstrated his dominance over the cats and courage in the ring. A consummate showman, his theatrical presentation made the audience fear for his life during every performance. He entered the steel arena wearing a pith helmet with a whip and pistol. His act was a “fighting act”, in which he constantly “fought” for control over the cats.  Lions, tigers, cougars, and hyenas, sometimes all in one steel cage at the same time, were his act. He was one of the first lion tamers to use a chair in his act, holding it between himself and the cats.  Beatty’s cats went to their positions, formed a pyramid, and sat up. He had a lion which walked on a barrel, a tiger who rolled over, cats who jumped hurdles, and then his “hypnosis act.”  In one favorite routine, Nero, his best large male lion, would knock the chair from his hand and drive him from the arena, from which Beatty would “escape” in the nick of time, slamming the cage door behind him. Pausing to review the situation and wipe his brow, Beatty would then reenter the cage to thunderous applause, and subdue Nero merely by a “hypnotic stare into his eyes.”   The movie “Ring of Fear” starring Beatty is highly recommended if you want to get an idea of what it is like to be in the steel arena with cats.
Beatty was hired by John Ringling North for the 1931 through 1934 seasons and billed as the “sensation of the century, greatest and most daring wild animal act ever presented.”  In 1932 Beatty was attacked by his lion, Nero, and nearly died from a resulting infection. The circus opening date was delayed until Beatty could join the show. 

In 1933, Beatty co-wrote his first book with Edward Anthony, The Big cage. Universal Pictures bought the rights to the book and produced the movie starring Beatty and a young Mickey Rooney.  Between 1933 and 1954 he appeared in ten films.  He appeared on television in the 1960s and co-authored  Facing the big cats; my world of lions and tigers (1965).  In 1937 he was on the cover of Time.

The Cole Bros. World Toured Shows featured Beatty as the star performer, 1934-1938. In 1939 he was the feature act at Hamid’s Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey and in 1940 with Hamid-Morton Circus. Beatty’s own circus, The Clyde Beatty Wild Animal Circus, performed 1941-1942.  Beatty and his first wife, Harriett Evans, operated The Clyde Beatty Jungle Zoo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1939-1945. He purchased the Wallace Bros. Circus and renamed it the Clyde Beatty Circus in 1945. His circus was very successful initially.  Harriet died in 1950. A year later, Beatty married Jane Abel with whom he had a son, Clyde, Jr.  In 1956 he sold his circus.  Clyde Beatty died of cancer in Ventura, CA, on July 19, 1965.


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