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Circus Animal Trainers
Submitted by Editor on 6/30/2005
CIRCUS ANIMAL TRAINERS*
By Joseph W. Rogers, Ph.D.
Member, Education Committee
Circus Fans Association of America
*This is a specially written monograph directed toward the middle school grades, 6—9. Included references encourage adaptation to other grade levels. It is the fourth in this series distributed by the Education Committee of the Circus Fans Association of America under the auspices of The National Circus Preservation Society. The first in this series was about clowns; the second on aerial acts; the third described circus ground acts.
The Education Committee Chairman is Mr. Robert Kitchen, 29 Damon Street, Fall River, Massachusetts 02720.
January 1, 1996
CIRCUS ANIMAL TRAINERS
Perhaps the most common error in writing about this subject is using the term “animal tamer. “ Professionals who work with wild animals emphasize regularly to their audiences that they train animals whom they never consider truly tamed. They further stress that animals such as lions, tigers, and elephants retain an element of danger to anyone, including their trainers, and should never be approached by strangers as though one was some sort of family pet. And as most of you already appreciate, even the family pet has been known to scratch or nip a curious visitor; and any meter reader or postal service worker has learned to be alert to otherwise friendly pups “guarding” their home territory.
Unfortunately some persons do dumb things. Author Bruce Filer relates the account of a woman who during a show, and while performers were making costume changes, walked into a prohibited area marked by numerous “DO NOT ENTER” signs. Ignoring the signs, she climbed over a portable orange fence, then approached a truck that held the circus bears. Still dumber, the woman -- who apparently had been drinking too much alcohol -- stuck her hot dog through a narrow gap at the bottom of the cage! Once the bear caught sight of the juicy treat, she lunged for it but also catching her paw in the lady’s bracelet. The animal’s claws dug deep into the intruder’s hand, tearing her index finger to shreds, The woman was rushed, of course, to the hospital for treatment. But to make matters still worse, there they learned she was HIVpositive. This resulted in subsequent testing of five Siberian bears and their three distraught handlers for the AIDS virus,
Although an unusual event, it does convey clear messages: Do not enter into prohibited areas on the circus lot -- the bans are for good reasons, such as electric cables, tent spikes, or nearby animals, and respect for family privacy. And NEVER feed any circus animal without the expressed permission and supervision of its trainer. Those cautions aside, an entertaining show awaits.
A Short History of Animals and the Circus
Long before the appearance of America’s first circus in 1793, animals had become companions and pets of ancient people. Wild animals, of course, were a different matter because of the danger involved. It is not surprising that some persons realized the natural curiosity these beasts had for the public, thus medieval records show trained bears of particular interest. Along with horses and dogs, roving showmen toured the countryside entertaining their audiences with the antics of their bears. By the end of the 18th century the first giraffes, lions, and elephants had come to the United States but primarily for exhibitions rather than for performance. Profits from the sales and shows of the first elephants were enormous. The story is told about owner Hackaliah Bailey who walked his elephant, “Old Bet,” across country only at night to avoid giving away a free show for which he could charge during the day.
Many historians consider Issac A. Van Amburgh (1811—1865) to have been America’ s first wild animal trainer of note. As a very young adult in 1833, he astounded a horrified audience by entering a cage of wild animals. Attired in Roman dress, Van Amburgh “with a firm step and unaverted eye” opened the door and immediately silenced the beasts with the power of his presence. His biographer, O.J. Ferguson, described this scene as follows:
The Lion halted and stood transfixed. The Tiger crouched. The Panther with a suppressed growl of rage sprang back, while the Leopard receded gradually from its master. The spectators were overwhelmed with wonder... Van Amburgh with his strong will bade them come to him while he reclined in the back of the cage -— the proud King of animal creation.
His fame was such that he became an international celebrity, even giving command performances for England’ s Queen Victoria. He originated several stunts such as having a lion and lamb lie down together, and having a child accompany him into cage. He saved enough money to start his own circus, purchase one of the grandest bandwagons of his day, develop a thirty-vehicle parade, and build a menagerie Alas, working at the dawn of animal training prior to the advent of more humane methods, Van Amburgh’s name will be forever linked to a “brute force” form of treatment which rightly is universally condemned today.
The annals of the American circus contain a multitude of famed wild animal trainers, perhaps none more so than Clyde Beatty (1903— 1965). Creating a dominating image in jungle attire with his cracking whip in one hand, a chair in another, plus a pistol (with blanks) in his holster, Beatty captured his enthralled audiences like no one before. His popularity was greatly enhanced by stardom in two Hollywood movies as well as an uncanny ability to control his animals in the “steel arena.” In 1926 he accomplished the astonishing feat of displaying 40 male and female tigers and lions in the cage at one time! He believed mixed animals provided a more exciting show, and that their natural dislike for each other served to the trainer’s advantage. He preferred to feed his cats after a performance and to work with jungle-born animals rather than those raised in captivity. By 1950 his Clyde Beatty Circus had become one of the largest railroad shows in America.
Space permits mention of only a few others Some, like Beatty, have authored books such as his Facing the Big Cats. When you are in a large library check such authors as Charley Baumann, Jimmy Chipperfield, Alfred Court, Damoo Dhotre, George W. Lewis, Roman Proske, and Mable Stark. When reading a general circus book, check for the above names plus such others as Axel Gautier, Karl Hagenbach, Terrell Jacobs, Louis Roth, Tarzan Zerbini, and Patricia White. Stark and White are considered to have been among the outstanding cat trainers. Lastly, it must be noted that Gunther Gebel-Williams ranks as the greatest all-round animal trainer in circus history, in that he has demonstrated superlative skills with elephants, cats, and horses —— on some occasions mixing these! His magnetic flair for style and presentation is without parallel. Partly “retired,” many of his animals are now trained and presented by daughter Tina Gebel and son Mark Oliver Gebel.
Sadly, the training, presentation, and even the keeping of animals is under persistent siege of extreme “animal rights” groups who believe that animals should be left entirely in the wild, their original habitats. Although many of these individual advocates are certainly well-meaning, our position obviously differs,. We believe that circus animals are among the best kept, best protected, and best treated in the world. Instead of fighting for everyday survival in the jungle, circus animals are well fed, attended by veterinarians, and affectionately cared for by their owners. Trainers since the days of Karl Hagenbach have learned that patience, kindness, and rewards are far superior in animal training to the outdated methods of punishment and fear.. Although firmness and authority may remain factors (just as we all learn such qualities in school, military service, etc.), contemporary trainers rely on gentleness, practice, and respect. It is not reaching at all to use the word “LOVE” here, for most trainers love their animals as much as any family might love its own special pet. Circus folks worry when their lion, tiger, or elephant is sick; they attend to the business of recovery; and they cry when a beloved one dies. They will not put up with cruelty either and will protest maltreatment if discovered among co-workers.
When you attend your next circus which contains a cat act, carefully watch the trainer after a cat performs a trick. You will probably notice a quick reach in a waist pocket from which a small tidbit of food will be slipped to the animal’s mouth. And don’t be surprised if you see a trainer rewarded with a juicy slurp, kiss, or embrace somewhere during the act! What a long way we have come since the days of Van Amburgh!
A Short Glossary of Training Argot
The caged arena in which the wild-animal trainer works with the cats. Individual animal cages are aligned end-to-end to form a tunnel through which the cats can enter the arena one at a time, and exited in similar fashion through a series of dropped doors. The difficulty of setting up and dismantling the big cage ordinarily means the cat acts are staged at the beginning or end of the show, or just after intermission.
Boss Elephant Man
The person in charge of the elephants. The term “Boss” was a common one for supervisors of either animals or workmen.
Elementary training of animals making them ready for performance.
Circus jargon for all elephants; however, most in the United States are female. Also most are Asian rather than African; the latter being distinguished by it larger ears which will be seen in photographs or posters of the great JUMBO. On some lots, elephants have been referred to as “rubber cows,”
Any person who is a trainer or leads the elephants, with the top trainer known as the head bull handler. The term Bull Hand has been used more informally to refer to those who help care for these animals.
This is commonly known as an “elephant goad.” It is a stick about 1 to 2 feet long with a small dull hook at the end. Rather than hurting the elephant, the stick is utilized to lead the bull by ~‘tugging” it in the path the handler wants to go.. Bull Tub A round pedestal used in elephant acts, Ring tricks may include putting all four feet on the tub, then rotating their bodies.
A seat for persons riding on the back of an elephant. On occasion these could be quite ornate, especially when depicting royalty. More commonly, showgirls ride sit astride the pachyderms without seats.
An important assistant to a trainer. Although he usually cleans cages, feeds and waters the animals, and attends to multiple chores, he often attends to the arena—entering chutes, works as a spotter outside the big cage, and stands by to help with any emergency.
Haltered animals such as camels, llamas, goats, and zebras but not horses.
A hybrid animal, the offspring of a male lion and a tigress; a Tiglon is the hybrid offspring of a male tiger and lioness.
This is a grand trick, often concluding the elephants’ performance. The bulls line up single file, trunk to tail. Then the elephants stand on their hind legs, placing their front feet on the back of the animal in front to form an impressive pachyderm array, particularly spectacular with a herd of ten or more. Trainer Fred Logan is renowned for creating his “walking long mount,” in which the line lumbers forward while still mounted!
In contrast to petting animals or those displayed in a menagerie, these are the circus animals which perform in the show itself.
Command for the elephants to go trunk-to-tail -- to follow in line.
Command to an elephant to raise its trunk in a salute to the audience..
Although the few following entries should prove helpful to you, many have been written for adults such as your parents and teachers. Also many, especially older works, may be difficult to locate; thus, you are encouraged to begin any study project with the assistance of your school and city librarians. Most will be glad to help you. If time permits, ask the librarian or a clerk in your local bookstore to check the “circus,” “animals,” and “animal trainers” sections of a reference volume entitled Books in Print for additional possibilities.
Wild Tigers and Tamed Fleas
,New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1958.
The American Circus: An Illustrated History
, New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.
Gebel-Williams, Gunther with Toni Reinhold..
Untamed: Autobiography of the Circus’s Greatest Animal Trainer
, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991.
Henderson, J.Y. (D.V.M.) and Richard Taplinger.
, Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
Hoh, LaVahn G. and William H. Rough.
Step Right Up! The Adventures of Circus in America
, White Hall, VA: Betterway Publications, Inc.., 1990.
Joys, Joanne Carol.
The Wild Animal Trainer in America,
Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Co., 1983.
Ogden, Tom. Two Hundred Years of the American Circus: From Aba-Daba to the Zoppe—Zavata Troupe, New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc., 1993.
Plowden, Gene. Gargantua,
Circus Star of the Century
, New York: Bonanza Books, 1972.
Blumberg, Rhoda and Jonathan Hunt..
, New York: Bradbury Press/Macmillan, 1992. Non—fiction —— Elementary/Middle School.
Duncan, Lois (Photographs by Joseph Janney Steinmetz).
The Circus Comes Home
, New York, NY: Doubleday, 1993. Non-fiction -- Middle
Fenner, Mildred Sanderson and Wolcott Fenner (editors).
The Circus: Lure and Legend
. Englewood, NJ: Prentice—Hall, Inc., 1970. A
collection of short pieces, both fiction and non-fiction -- Middle School/High School.
McClung, Robert M. and Marilyn Janowitz.
America’s First Elephant
, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991. History told as a fictional story -- Middle School.
, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1992. Non—fiction —— Middle School.
, Boston, MA: Houghton Miff lin Company, 1964. Fiction -- Elementary School.
, Boston, MA: Houghton Miff lin Company, 1984. Fiction -— Elementary School.
Living with the Big Cats: The Story of Jungle Larry, Safari Jane, and David Telzlaff
, Naples, FL: International
Zoological Society, Inc., 1995. —— High School.
Royal, Bruce R.
Speaking of Elephants and the Circus Under Canvas,
Waco, TX: Texian Press, 1973. —— High School.
Smucker, Barbara. Incredible Jumbo, New York: Viking/Penguin, 1990. Fiction -- Middle School.
New York: Doubleday, 1992. Fiction --Elementary/Middle School.
Circus World Museum
Attn. Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center
426 Water Street, Baraboo, Wisconsin 53913
Curator of Circus Collections
Milner Library Special Collections
Illinois State University
Normal, Illinois 61761
If you reside in or visit one of the following cities, plan to visit the fine museum or library listed. Their courteous, trained staff will make you feel welcome, and will be glad to answer questions concerning their exhibits, books, and programs.
The Barnum Museum
820 Main Street
Bridgeport, Connecticut 06604
The Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum
210 West Market Street
San Antonio, Texas 78205
The Ringling Museums
P.O. Box 1838
Sarasota, Florida 33578
(Located on Sarasota Bay, this huge complex is easily found.)
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