Heroines of the Circus – The Big Cat Trainer

29 Dec

Mabel Stark and Leopard - 1915

“For more than twenty-five years, I have been breaking, working, and training tigers. I have been clawed and slashed and chewed until there is hardly an inch of my body unscarred by tooth or nail. But I love these big cats as a mother loves her children, even when they are the most wayward. They are killers because they know their own strength. They can be subdued by never conquered, except by love. And that is the secret of all successful animal training. I have learned it at the risk of my life. . . “ Mabel Stark

One of seven children, Mabel was born Mary Haynie in 1889 Tennessee. Her parents were farmers who tragically died leaving her an orphan in her teens. She went to live with her aunt and after a short period spent working as a nurse she discovered the circus initially working as a horseback rider until she fell in love with the big cats.

She started working with the big cat trainer Louis Roth who went on to become her first husband (She married a further five times) and she became a tiger trainer in the ring. At the age of 27, she was presenting the show’s major tiger act and became known as the world’s first female big cat trainer. As well as working with tigers and panthers, she raised a sickly tiger cub training him to perform a wrestling act with her where she put her face inside his mouth.

Training big cats was clearly not without it’s dangers though. In 1928, Mabel lost her footing in a muddy arena which resulted in her being attacked by her tigers receiving numerous injuries which included a hole in her shoulder.

In her description of this mauling Mabel wrote, “Sheik was right behind me, and caught me in the left thigh, tearing a two-inch gash that cut through to the bone and almost severed my left leg just above the knee. . . I could feel blood pouring into both my boots, but I was determined to go through with the act. . .(Zoo) jumped from his pedestal and seized my right leg, jerking me to the ground.”

“As I fell, Sheik struck out with one paw, catching the side of my head, almost scalping me… Zoo gave a deep growl and bit my leg again. He gave it a shake, and planting both forefeet with his claws deep in my flesh, started to chew… I wondered into how many pieces I would be torn… Most of all I was concerned for the audience… I knew it would be a horrible sight if my body was torn apart before their eyes. And all my tigers would be branded as murderers and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in narrow cages instead of being allowed the freedom of the big arena and the pleasure of working. That thought gave me strength to fight.”

MS-MabelStark_and_Prince

Mabel was thankfully rescued from this attack by co-trainer Terrell Jacobs and was incredibly back at work in a matter of weeks albeit with a walking stick and swathes of bandages.

Said Mabel, “I always blame myself—not the tiger, if something goes wrong. Maybe it is an ulcerated tooth, a sore paw, a just a grudge against the world for no good reason at all that has upset the cat. . .Then the fun starts.”

Mabel later claimed that she had been attacked by Zoo and Sheik because the cats had not been fed or watered that day. “No wonder,” wrote Miss Stark, “I literally had to battle for my life.” Other injuries were to follow over the years.

Mabel toured around America, Europe and Japan with her act but after a successful career that lasted almost sixty years she was fired from her position at Jungleland at Thousand Oaks when the boss took a dislike to her. Soon after she left, one of the tigers escaped and was shot. Mabel was extremely upset at the loss of the animal and felt that if she had been there the cat would have been returned safely retaining it’s life.

Just three months later on April 20, 1968 at the age of 78, Mabel committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates.

“Out slink the striped cats, snarling and roaring, leaping at each other or at me. It’s a matchless thrill, and life without it is not worth while to me. I hope each new season until my number is up will find me shouting, ‘Let them come!” Mabel Stark “Hold That Tiger” (by Mabel Stark, as told to Gertrude Orr, published in 1938.)

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