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Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 9



The awe inspired in the breast of the average countryman by the “daring act” of the lion-tamer is well founded. Long years of familiarity with this feature of the show business have not served to dampen my sense of admiration for the grit of a man who does not flinch to enter the cage of any fierce animal and prove man’s mastery over the brute creation. In justification of this sentiment I have only to point to the professional animal-trainers of long experience. If there is one of them who does not bear on his body the marks of his encounters with his savage pupils he is a rare exception to the rule. The whole fraternity is physically ragged and tattered—torn and mutilated by the teeth of beasts they have trained. I have never ceased to marvel that men will deliberately choose to follow the subjugation of animals as a profession, particularly when they have only to look upon the veterans in the business to behold a ghastly and discouraging array of ragged ears, of split noses, of shredded limbs and lacerated trunks. But at these substantial warnings the novice and the past-master in the art of "working" animals alike only laugh and scout the idea of danger or dread. At least, this is their attitude in private conversation, when not attempting to make an impression on the minds of their auditors.

If all animals subjected to training were even in disposition, and did not have their ugly moods, the same as their human lords, the principal element of danger to trainers would be removed. Unfortunately, it is the universal testimony of the men who have devoted their lives to the training of fierce creatures that the most docile, obedient and friendly carnivorous creature is sure to be in an ugly humor sooner or later, and then is the great time of test. These sudden, unexpected and abnormal moods in the animals handled are responsible for having sent scores of good trainers to early graves.


Let us suppose an animal to be even-tempered. This means he is always at his maximum of ugliness. He shows every day the worst that is in him, and the trainer knows the limit of what to expect in that direction. But animals are not constituted that way. They are generally on their good behavior, or at least have an astonishing reserve of ferocity to be vented on the hapless trainer when the day of abnormal ill-humor comes—provided, of course, the trainer is not discerning enough to detect the gathering storm.

In no other profession is eternal vigilance so surely the price of safety. There is nothing more certain than the fate of the trainer who once relaxes the intensity of his vigilance. Just as surely as he throws himself off guard the animal he is working will get him. This is an accepted rule among those who train and perform with animals. Of course, it often appears to the outsider that the men handling ferocious animals are off their guard and non-chalantly indifferent to the creatures in the cage. But the experienced animal-man knows better. The fact that a trainer or performer allows two or three lions to pass behind his back might seem to indicate that watchfulness is not necessary, and that creatures naturally ferocious may at least sometimes be put absolutely on their good behavior—trusted with a man's life without being subjected to the slightest surveillance. In nine cases of every ten a momentary adherence to this departure would result in disaster.


The best men of the profession I have ever known have all assured me that the stupidest animal is quicker to detect the slightest relaxation of a trainer's watchfulness than is the keenest trainer to observe the abnormal and hostile mood of his pupils. For this reason no trainer or performer should be allowed to enter a cage unless he is in a normal frame of mind—sober, in full command of all his faculties, and not subject to any distracting influence.

Most of the tragedies of the profession are chargeable to a disobedience to this rule. The unfailing brute instinct at once detects the fact that the trainer has let down the bars of his mind, and then comes the long-delayed attack!

Never do I tire of watching a good trainer work his animals, especially those fresh from their native wilds and full of snap and spirit. What sport more splendid and royal can man imagine than that of placing his life in imminent peril for the purpose of putting a wild beast—a creature far his superior in strength, in swiftness of movement, and in all-round fighting power—in complete subjection to his will! It is truly a sport for a king!


The only universal rule for working animals recognized by all trainers is this: First, show the creature what you wish done; then make him do it. Easily said, but sometimes almost impossible in practice. I have yet to find any other line of human effort demanding such unwearying patience and application, shifty tact and unflagging alertness. All of these mental qualities are brought into activity during every moment that a trainer is working his animals. And not for an instant may he safely slacken his courage or control. A stout heart is his only safety. To go into a cage in a state of fear is recognized among these men as a foolhardy undertaking.

My observation is that trainers almost universally prefer captured animals to those born in captivity, so far as working purposes are concerned. This preference is founded on practical experience—for your animal trainer is little inclined to theorize or experiment in his work. The answer which my trainers have invariably returned to questions on this point of animal nature has been: The wild animal is afraid of man, recognizes him as a strange, dangerous enemy, and is willing to make a safe retreat from him. The carnivorous beast born in captivity is accustomed to the daily sight of man, and has not the wholesome and instinctive fear of him that dwells in the breast of the free-born denizen of the jungle. On the other hand, the cage-born creature seems to retain all the mean, treacherous and savage traits of its race.

Then the trainers declare that the jungle-reared animals are more intelligent and active, and therefore make better performers. This I have no reason to doubt. Leopards are the least in favor among trainers, and the latter prefer to undertake the education of lions rather than tigers, as the former have more stability of disposition, and lack the element of treachery which seems so universally a characteristic of cat nature.


The first active step which a trainer takes in the education of an animal which has never been handled is to test its temper. I recall very
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distinctly watching an excellent trainer working a leopard and a jaguar from start to finish. No man had ever been into the cage along with these vicious brutes before "Frenchy," as we called this crack trainer, laughingly took up his tools and slipped gracefully through the iron door which closed behind him with a sharp bang. Realizing that these animals, which were full grown, belonged to the most spiteful and treacherous of the cat kind, I scrutinized the face of Frenchy to see if I could possibly detect the slightest sign of inward anxiety or disturbance. Not the slightest evidence could I see to indicate that he approached his dangerous task with a particle more excitement than any business man feels in going to his daily work.

As he slipped into the cage he thrust before him an ordinary kitchen chair of light, hard wood. This was held in his left hand by gripping two of the central spindles of the back, thereby obtaining an excellent purchase which enabled him easily to hold the chair outstretched with its legs pointed directly at the animals. In his right hand he carried a short iron training-rod. The only other article which he used in his first lesson was a stout, movable bracket, which could be instantly hooked upon any of the horizontal bars which extended the length of the cage in front.

The instant the trainer faced his pupils there was a regular feline explosion—a medley of snarls, growls and hisses. And the way those spotted paws slapped and cuffed the rounds of the extended chair which served as a shield to Frenchy's legs was something to be remembered. Never before had I seen such a startling exhibition of feline quickness as in this preliminary skirmish between master and pupils. The latter's claws seemed to be everywhere in a moment and played a lively tattoo on the shield and against the point of the rod with which the trainer protected himself. During all this excitement the trainer was as calm as if standing safely outside the cage. However, he did make some lively thrusts with his rod as the leopard attempted to dash under the legs of the chair.

While one of the beasts was engaged in carrying on an offensive warfare, the other would invariably attempt to sneak behind the trainer. How alert the latter was to the movements of the creature which apparently claimed little of his attention was impressed on me by the fact that every time the crouching animal attempted to steal past the trainer he was met with the quick, sidewise thrusts of the prod, which sent him back spitting and hissing into the corner.


In less than half an hour the leopard and the jaguar seemed to realize that they, and not the man, were on the defensive. Their savage dashes were less frequent, and they were more inclined to crouch close to the floor and lash their tails in sullen defiance. Then it was that Frenchy began his first attempt at teaching them. Hooking the movable bracket upon one of the lower rounds about three feet from the floor of the cage, he made a forward movement toward the animals, veering a little to the side opposite the bracket. The creatures had long been attempting to get past him, and now their opportunity had apparently come.

Together they made a rush to run under the projecting bracket. Quick as a flash, however, the trainer was back again in his old place, and the head of the foremost animal struck the rounds of the chair. This checked the leopard's progress for a moment, but the creature was not given a jab of the rod as before. Instead, the chair was slightly withdrawn, with the result that the spotted cat instantly bounded upon the narrow bracket—precisely the result at which the trainer had been aiming.

Before the leopard was fully aware of what was transpiring, Frenchy reached forth his training-rod and rubbed it caressingly along the creature's back from head to tail. Of course the animal struck out spitefully with its paw, but the blows were received by the chair and did no harm, while the trainer had been able to bestow upon his ferocious pupil a caressing touch of approval.

Even at that early stage in the education of the animal I fancied I could see an understanding of this commendatory stroke. Certainly within a week this sign was clearly understood, and never did one of the animals leap upon the bracket without receiving this token of approval. Before Frenchy came out of the cage on the occasion of this first experience with these two creatures his chair was splintered beyond repair. Backing out as deftly as he had entered, he leaned up against one of the posts in the winter quarters and remarked:

"Those cats will make good performers. They've got just enough fight in them. I don't mind working a leopard that's been captured, but I don't want anything to do with cats that have been born in a cage. By the time an animal has cuffed one chair to pieces I can generally size him up and get at his disposition. I don't mind a creature that's ready for war right at the start. The sulky, sullen brutes are the ones that keep a trainer in a perpetual state of suspicion."


Most of the training is done while the animals are in winter quarters, the cages being generally arranged in a semicircle or along the wall, while the center of the main room is occupied by a big ring or circular space inclosed by a very strong and high fence of iron bars. At first the animals are worked in their cages, later in the ring. Lounging about in front of the cages is a man with a long iron rod having a sharp point. The duty of this guard is to keep watch of all the cages where animals are being worked, and to be ready to come to the instant relief of any of the trainers who happen to get into trouble. Occasionally he assists them from the outside in various ways; as, for instance, by slipping his rod between the bars and heading off an animal which is attempting to sneak out of doing his trick. In the main, however, he is there to do heroic service in times of emergency.

Should a lion, tiger or any other savage creature get a trainer down or fasten its teeth or claws into his body, the watchful guard on the outside is expected to plunge his spear into the animal, or get into the cage with hot irons, if necessary. The use of heated irons is, of course, only justifiable in cases of extreme peril, but more than one trainer's life has been saved by recourse to this weapon, which quickly cows an infuriated creature which has had a taste of blood when nothing else will avail.


I have already cited one cardinal rule recognized by all animal workers. There is one other just as universally accepted by the fraternity of trainers. This is, that any animal which has inflicted injury on a trainer must be punished until completely subjugated. This punishment must be given, if possible, by the one whom the creature has injured.

No doubt more than one trainer who has been half killed by a treacherous animal has been inclined to overlook this chastisement after recovering from his injuries. This, however, is regarded as professional treachery, for it is practically certain that the rebellious animal that is not chastised in this manner will kill the next man who enters its cage. To neglect to show the brute which has injured you that you are its master is therefore, according to the ethics of the profession, a deed of cowardice, and a sure way of bringing disaster upon any other person having the hardihood to trust himself in the power of an animal that has "downed" its trainer.

Of course some trainers are killed outright, and others are so disabled in severe encounters that they are absolutely unable to continue in the service. Then the duty of inflicting the chastisement falls upon a new man, and you may rest assured he never looks forward to the job with any particular pleasure. There is but one course, however, and that is to beat the creature until it howls for mercy. Occasionally an animal famed for its splendid performances is suddenly and without any apparent reason retired from the program. As a performing animal is worth many times as much as one that has not been trained, this would seem a strange and unbusinesslike course on the part of the management.

The outsider would immediately ask: "Why not continue the performance with this animal so long as it does not kill a man or conduct itself more savagely than many others of its kind which have the confidence of trainers and performers?"

The answer is very simple: The man handling the animal and knowing well its character has been able to discern a radical change in its disposition. He declares that the brute is no longer to be trusted, and any wise and humane showman who receives this kind of a warning from a reliable and efficient trainer or performer will retire the brute in question to a cage and leave it there. On the other hand, some animals which have tasted blood, and even "killed their man," are continued in the service. Why? Because the trainer who goes in to chastise them believes that he has been able to beat the animal into a permanent state of penitence, humility and wholesome fear, and to effectually obliterate the sense of triumph in the mind of the creature.


Occasionally a foolish and intermeddling spectator will endeavor to show his brilliancy by experimenting with the animals. More than once this tendency has well-nigh cost a performer his life. I recall one instance when a performer was doing an act in a cage containing five lions. He had just begun his work, and the lions had taken their positions.
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In the middle of the cage, facing him, was one large lion, and at either end sat two others. Of course a big crowd had collected in front of the cage and was pressing heavily against the guard ropes. Suddenly a countryman of the smart kind was seized with a desire to distinguish himself and attract a little attention. Slipping inside the ropes, he stooped down and took up the ragged little dog that was crouching at his heels. The instant he lifted the cur up to the level of the cage every lion gave out a roar and made a wild leap for the yellow mongrel.

For a few moments the performer was completely lost to view, buried underneath the writhing bodies of the infuriated lions. Of course the animal men outside made a rush for the cage door, but before they could reach it with their irons in hand the plucky performer was on his feet again and fighting his own battle. A tooth or a claw had split his nose and upper lip, and the tattered condition of his clothing indicated that he had suffered severely. Although his face was bathed in blood, he stood his ground and plied his rod on the heads and noses of the growling beasts until they were momentarily driven back. But they had tasted blood and were furious. Before he could reach the door they were at him again, and in the onslaught his right arm and hip were frightfully lacerated. His grit, however, was indomitable, and he struck and jabbed right and left like a gladiator. Finally the howls of pain from the lions revealed the fact that he was getting the upper hand of them, and at last they were driven howling and whining into the corners of the cage and he backed out of the door. No sooner was he safely outside the cage than he became unconscious.

It was a good thing for the countryman whose folly had stirred up the lions that he contrived to make his escape from the grounds before the circus men got hold of him. This incident is simply typical of hundreds of others perhaps more interesting and exciting. It will, however, serve to indicate the constant perils that surround the trainer or performer, many of which arise from sources over which he has no control.

I have often been asked if the training of animals does not quite generally involve considerable cruelty. This, it seems to me, may fairly be answered in the negative, although one exception should be made. Though great firmness must be shown in working wild animals, and frequent and severe chastisements are called for, there is nothing essentially cruel in the method of training. This, however, cannot be said of the methods generally followed by the trainers of horses.

I can never forget how forcibly and painfully this exception was brought home to me. In company with Mr. Costello I had brought from Texas and New Mexico a herd of beautiful pinto ponies, or bronchos. They were handsome piebald creatures, and apparently very intelligent, although desperately wild. From a herd of about forty we picked out sixteen to be educated for the ring. About ten miles out of Chicago we put up a convenient stable and engaged one of the most celebrated trainers in the United States. In the course of a few weeks the animals became accustomed to having men about them, and then I told the trainer to begin his work.

I had never watched a trainer work horses for the ring, and I was greatly interested to see how it was done. The method was so cruel that I told the trainer if he could not invent a method which inflicted less torture he might quit and we would have the horses sold. He had not the ingenuity or patience to devise a more humane method, and consequently retired from the field, leaving his assistant to work out the problem under my directions. This we finally succeeded in doing with fair results, but the method followed by the trainer is a more general one.


In teaching a horse to dance, the master would strike the poor animal above the fetlock, and this would produce a painful swelling. The result was that in a very short time the motion of the stick, in time with the music, would cause the horse to raise its foot. Before the swollen limb was healed the performance was repeated so frequently that the animal did not need the incentives of fear and pain to cause him to keep step with the music.

Jumping the rope is taught in nearly the same manner, a chain being attached to two long sticks swinging back and forth, striking the horse just below the knee. As a man was stationed on each side of him, the poor horse had no way of retreat, and was compelled to jump in order to escape the blow from the swinging bar. A horse is taught to roll an object or to push open a door in a very simple manner, and without cruelty. One man stands in front of the horse and another behind him, the three being stationed in a passageway too narrow for the horse to turn. After standing a bit in this way, the man behind the horse gently slaps him on the back and urges him forward. Instinctively the horse pushes against the man in front, and the latter quickly moves along. In this manner the horse soon learns that by pushing against an object in front of him it may readily be forced out of his way. An intelligent spectator can always tell by the attitude of a horse toward its master whether it has been ill treated. If fear seems to be the governing motive it may be depended upon that the horse has been harshly dealt with; on the other hand, the very nature of the trick performed by the animal goes far to indicate whether fear or intelligence has been the main factor in acquiring the accomplishment displayed. If you see an animal open a trunk or drawer and pick out some article for which it has been sent, you may know that this feat is the result of an appeal to the creature's intelligence and not to its fear, for no amount of punishment could ever teach a thing of this kind.


Ring horses are generally irritated when the rider first stands upon their backs. Probably the action of the foot pulls the short hair; but the irritation ceases in a short time. Riders are first trained to do their tricks on the ground. When complete masters of themselves on the ground they are put upon the back of a horse having an even gait and a reliable disposition. To the performer's belt, at the back, is attached a stout rope which runs to the end of a strong arm or beam running out from a post set in the center of the ring. This arm is swung around by a helper, who keeps the loose end of the rope in his hand in order to regulate the slack and prevent the young performer from having a heavy fall should he lose his footing. Again and again the rider is pulled up just in time to prevent him from falling under the hoofs of his horse. He is swung forward, dangling from the arm of the derrick, until he regains his balance and his footing upon the back of his horse.

To describe in detail how every feat and specialty is taught would require a volume, but on general principles it may be said that all tricks are first learned on the ground, or at a safe and minimum elevation. Then when the performer has attained absolute self-confidence and is wholly without fear he is allowed to swing higher, until he finally reaches the height required in the public performance.


In the old days it was the general custom for the circus proprietors to put their own children into the business, teaching them to do everything in the acrobatic line, from bare-back riding to trapeze and bar work and slack-rope and tight-rope walking. Many of them were also skilled musicians and could play several instruments in the band.

At the present day many persons not familiar with the inside life of the circus will no doubt be horrified to think that a man wealthy enough to own a big circus and menagerie would train his sons, and particularly his daughters, for the ring. Let me say on this score that I could name a long list of families in which this custom prevailed, and must say that the private and domestic life of these people was far above that of the average families in fashionable society. Almost invariably the members of each family were devoted to each other and were refined and intelligent. Many of the young women of these families married wealthy and cultured men, and retired from the circus business to become the mistresses of refined and happy homes. Many old showmen whose children were star performers carried accomplished teachers with them on the road, and the children were as well educated as if the entire time had been spent attending school.

Their training and work in the ring not only afforded them splendid physical exercise, but taught them patience, application, alertness, and many other valuable lessons which made their progress very rapid when it came to their lessons from books. It is a fact worthy of notice that the circus people are a long-lived race. I can name almost a score of famous performers who have attained an age of more than eighty years. This would tend to show that circus work is quite as healthy as any other. I may add that the charge so frequently brought against showmen, that the training of children for the circus ring is cruel, is not well founded.

While I have seen many instances of cruelty in this connection, there is nothing in the work itself which necessitates hardship or harshness. In fact, quite the reverse is true.

The child is the sooner trained into an ability to do a dangerous and daring feat through gentleness and encouragement. In other words, the more they overcome their fear in every direction the better able are they to swing from one trapeze to another, to walk the tight rope at a dizzy height, or to turn somersaults from the back of a galloping horse.