Skip to main content

Training big cats, and other circus animals

Stressful time for wild animal trainers

American wild animal trainer, Dave Hoover, worked with lions at L.E. Barnes Circus, a trainer who continued "a fighting style" reminiscent of circus glory days. He held off aggressive lions with a chair, a whip, and blank pistol. Looking backward, old circus bill posters depict that "fighting style." Wild animal training acts appear more tame in the modern circus, but old legends like Clyde Beatty and Mabel Stark loved their big cats.

Animal right activists have forced trainers to take greater care of their animals. But no one loves animals more than wild animal trainers. They dedicate their lives training, feeding and maintaining their proper diet, sheltering, and sacrificing all their attention to the animals.

Modern wild animal trainers learn from brave and adventurist predecessors before them. Trainers don’t enter a wild animal cage to get mauled and commit suicide. They apply the best techniques possible to survive in their profession. Rick Glassey, a successful Hollywood wild animal trainer, lives in Oregon. Like other trainers, he has been bit by big cats, but personal experience taught him to avoid feeling nasty bites.

Andy Goldfarb, a wild animal expert, works with tigers in Dreamworld, Australia, a tiger compound. He was bitten in the foot by a playful tiger, hospitalized for two weeks, cleaned out, and took ivy antibiotic medicine. He loves the tiger that bit him and harbors no resentment. Wild animal trainers that are bitten take similar medicine. Big cats are meat eaters and have dirty mouths.

Animal right critics complain animals are placed in awkward situations contrary to their natural environment in the jungle. But often, circus fans have eye-witnessed the pride and joy animals feel performing for audiences. Wild animals exhibit a tremendous capacity of performing astonishing athletic maneuvers.

Taming lions and tigers in 19th century

First known wild animal trainer

Van Amburg's wild animal menagerie

Van Amburg's wild animal menagerie

Wild animal training's early origin

For centuries, wild animal spectaculars thrilled audiences and demonstrated cruelty to animals considered worse than matadors killing fierce bulls at Mexican bullfights. Early as 61 B.C. Pompey financed a free show for Romans, advertised on walls and pillars of Rome, five day exhibitions in Circus Maximus. Pompey was responsible for requesting a mass killing of 500 ferocious Numidian lions and 20 huge pachyderms. Lions and elephants fought until their death. Many condemned criminals were sacrificed for sport. Only skillful use of a pointed spear could help them.

In 1821, Van Amburg became the first wild animal trainer to transport big cats along with his show. The nineteen-year-old entered a cage with a lion, panther, tiger, and leopard; those animals have a natural inclination to battle each other. England and France hailed the spectacle. Van Amburg appeared on stage wearing a Roman costume and called himself the first lion tamer. He is the first trainer to put his head in a lion's mouth.Three years later, Van Amburg's act impressed Queen Victoria. She was present at his circus once every week for a month and a half. Amburg's command performance, January 29, 1839, included a lavish royal court celebration.

Ringling Brothers' performing tigers

Wild animal trainer's preference

Lions and tigers are the most popular big cats trained for circus performing. Trainers form different attitudes and experiences working with both animals. Some trainers prefer training only one specie of animal. Considering opposing viewpoints, results vary depending on effective techniques of trainers and certain characteristics that set lions and tigers apart.

An amazing wild woman, Mabel Stark, preferred facing an aggressive charge of a lion than a tiger. She maintained her ground and sidestepped lions well. She thought trainers needed to discipline tigers firmer than lions, and claimed trainers couldn’t retreat from a tiger or run away from it; a beast's claws aimed for its trainer’s throat and back. She loved tigers and accepted the challenge of working with them.

Wild animal trainer, Pat Anthony, experienced difficulty handling lions. He disliked lions bouncing across the floor with a fierce continuous charge. He believed tigers attacked one-time, taking a big leap through the air. Tigers that miss their target a first time don’t reset into a leap position and charge again like a lion.

Wild animal trainer, Charly Baumann, survived narrow escapes working with lions, and took up training tigers. He was much happier working with them.

Dave Hoover loved the challenge of working with lions, a beast he considered "lazy." Lions seize perfect opportunities to cause trouble. He applied the technique of "repetition" to train lions and avoided pushing them to perform actions.

Modern day female animal trainer

Choice between tigers and lions

Las Vegas wild animal trainers

Sigfried and Roy

Sigfried and Roy

Martin Lacey Jr. and white lion

Physical differences of lions and tigers

The tiger is regarded more bloodthirsty, treacherous, and difficult to train, but physical prowess favors lions in battle. The tiger lacks a mane. The lion's great advantage stems from its strong forequarters, and its furry mane protects the carotid artery against attacking claws and jaws.

Lions are more massive and muscular than tigers which enable them to perform with stronger endurance. They're adroit movers in combat. Trainers have witnessed tigers bite and lash out against lions, but they seldom hurt the king of beasts.

Scroll to Continue

Lions have thrived on outstanding target points, killing tigers by crushing the back of their necks and spines. A tiger has greater speed than a lion and fights with two front paws at a time while the lion only fights with one front paw. In spite of the tiger’s speed, wild animal trainers have collected more dead tiger carcasses.

Early training techniques applied to big cats

Trainers carefully select big cats for their acts. Certain animals are unsuitable for wild animal training. Cross-eyes cats lack mental poise, balance, possess warped intellect, and indicate miss-breading.

Stark chose to train healthy cats at the age of one and a half to two years old. She considered five-year-old cats too treacherous. She preferred to train felines because they were more responsive, not more intelligent.

Baumann began training fifteen month old tigers. He considered their bone structure development and whether or not an animal performed his act without showing signs of deformity.

Both Stark and Baumann claimed early tiger training required time and patience. Tigers only concentrate on one task at a time. Stark claimed her tigers couldn’t work more than fifteen minutes at a stretch. A tiger would flatten back its ears, the tail wagged nervously, an indication it felt over worked. Baumann limited training sessions to forty-five-minute periods. He stressed over worked tigers produced counterproductive training sessions, and impatient tigers forgot specific instructions.

Clyde Beatty became world famous for his ability to train and handle circus big cats. He was a five-and-a-half feet sensation, and resented trainers that applied cruel treatment as a necessity to train animals. He pointed out that a lion or tiger was no different from a human in many respects. Kindness, patience, and firmness, accomplished better results for Beatty than training wild animals by applying cruelty. Beatty studied his animals, their tricks, dispositions, and characteristics.

Carl Hagenbeck applied the reward method of training. He used a standard whip and leather pouch filled with small chunks of meat to reward the beast as it learned complex tricks step by step.

Wild animals obey trainers by responding to their physical mannerisms and tone of voice. Charly Baumann had once been scratched badly by his lions. His furious voice frightened them and they returned to their pedestals.

Carl Hagenbeck


Putting head in wild animal's mouth

Wild animal trainers popularized the act of putting their heads into lions and tiger’s mouths. The act has been a performance success for many circus performers, but many trainers have mixed feelings.

Anthony discouraged the practice. He believed the performance required a freakish tamed lion. Super halitosis of lions causes foul breath. He thought the stunt diminished anxiety of the show. Lions performing the stunt looked like chickens. Circus history reveals trainers couldn’t resist performing it. Baumann practiced the stunt for his girlfriend and injured himself. A tiger fractured his skull and he was hospitalized. Baumann continued to repeat the stunt after repeated warnings.

German wild animal trainer


Training big cats to learn advanced tricks

Seat breaking begins after trainers familiarize their big cats with a performing arena. The animal is trained to mount a solid wooden block. Their natural suspicions are diminished and they are instructed to mount an iron-legged pedestal. Big cats are conditioned to respond by rewarding them with chunks of meat and words of praise. They perform activities like jumping on top of pedestals from the floor and remain seated on their haunches. Baumann devoted three days to seat break a young tiger. He valued seat breaking as a great security measure, a life saver during mishaps, he ordered his tigers to take their seats.

Stark cued her big tyro tigers with a stockyard whip. She never used the crackling lash-whip.

Anthony established the basic movement of the cue; it was always consistent, body position, stance, and tone of voice were identical each time. He also used a prop pistol loaded with blanks for training tigers. The pistol shot sound gets the tigers attention. He suggested taking great care using a pistol, aiming too close to the cat could burn and startle them.

Hagenbeck instructed Baumann to give tigers plenty of space; he had difficulty getting a tiger to sit up. He moved farther away from the tiger by signaling a cue using a longer stick. The tiger cooperated. Batons were used to cue tigers and rose in popularity with modernization. Tigers love to perform in large arenas and wooden floors.

Baumann taught sit-ups to tigers on pedestals which were positioned against steel bars of practice cages. The tiger faced sideways and leaned against bars for support while he lifted himself into an erect position. The trainer carried thin cuts of meat on the point of a metal pole that dangled over a tiger’s head. The tiger was encouraged to sit-up on his rump and steady himself on the cage bars with one paw. Successfully accomplished, the pedestal was gradually moved away from the bars. The tiger learns to sit-up on his own, eats the chunk of meat, and responds to a cue from a wooden stick.

Stark cued her cats to sit-up with an upswing motion of the arm. Her advanced technique made using a whip stock unnecessary. The famous female trainer learned to draw a strong charge from lions and tigers by raising her hand, tone of voice, and set position.

The rollover trick was an accidental revelation. Stark was cornered by a tiger. She kicked him and the cat rolled over. Her second kick caused a second roll. A new trick was invented! She cued her roll-over tigers with a leg-swinging movement.

Baumann learned tigers were unsociable creatures that resented close contact with one another. He applied numerous hours of determined practice and delighted circus fans by training three tigers to roll-over together, an exhibition nationally televised.

Stark specialized in center pyramids. She displayed her felines across ring center and entered the spectacle with tigers positioned to her right and left, behind and above her. The center pyramid showcased Stark’s masterful nerve and skill. Other cat trainers arranged their animals in a group pattern that enabled them to face their beasts standing in a safe position.

Stark thrilled circus crowds with a spectacular wrestling match with a tiger. She raised her huge tiger, Rajah, on goat’s milk. She wore a white leather suit for a tiger-wrestling match; it provided stronger protection, she had suffered from an undetected brain abscess caused by Rajah’s playful swipe during a wrestling match exhibition.

Stark also taught her tigers how to walk across a heavy cable. Tigers are not accustomed to cross their feet while walking. She began the trick with two parallel planks. It required infinite patience. She trained the tiger to cross a two-plank bridge, one was removed, and she started the trick again. The tiger was trained to move across a single rail, and then adapted to perform the trick on heavy cable. The cable was hard on the tiger’s foot webs but Stark kept the cages clean which prevented infection. She raised the cable above the board slightly higher each day until the cat was able to walk on it without the board.

Jumping is a basic skill included in tiger acts. Baumann began the trick by placing two large pedestals side to side. The tiger was placed on one pedestal; a piece of meat was placed on the other one. The tiger got off the pedestal after he ate the meat. The idea forced the tiger to leap a considerable distance for a piece of meat by moving pedestals farther apart. The trick became more demanding until the tiger performed a grand leap. Tigers are naturally fine jumpers; they soar through the air from nine to twelve feet.

Baumann also designated himself as a center object for his big cat to jump over. He trained tigers to fly through a hoop held over his head, a magnificent sight, the audience witness a tiger leap through a fire hoop. He used an asbestos-wrapped hoop; a little gasoline was applied and ignited on the lower edge of each side. Bauman applied care and patience to increase flames of the ring of fire as a tiger became braver. Tigers accomplished success by jumping through hoops lit with lighter fluid on the top three quarters.

Nikolai Pavlenko loved to use an older experienced feline tiger to jump over his head while he held up two paper hoops. He didn't trust any of the other tigers to perform the trick.

Black Morgan stallion

Horses and big cats team-up for super tricks

Horses and Big Cats team-up for Super Tricks

A tiger and horse were conditioned to each other before a riding trick was performed. A trainer walked a horse around the arena and allowed it to become accustomed to the pungent smell of the tiger. The animals were brought together in an arena after the trainer had controlled tiger aggression and horse panic.

The tiger was restrained by a neck chain attached to a lunge line of strong rope held by the trainer. The horse wore blinders and check rein. The horse’s body was protected from the tiger’s claws and jaws by a heavy canvas blanket padded on top. Its neck carried a heavy leather and wood collar that had spike points that discouraged tiger bites. Canvas leggings protected the horse also. The tiger rode on a flat platform saddle made out of wood with rope nailed to it for secure footing. The trained horse stood motionless as the big cat entered the arena. The horse would get bitten if it twitched a muscle.

Gunther Gabel Williams escorted a pair of horseback riding lions for Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. In 1982, Gunther opened the show riding into the arena astride two black Morgan’s with lions accompanying him on each mount. Stallions are difficult to train and handle but Gunther preferred to work with them. “Stallions are more spirited. They make a very exciting show,” he said.

Williams loved to stage shows with mixed animals. Performing at the Spanischer National Circus, 1963, elephants and tigers used their hind legs to rotate around a stool simultaneously. Performing at Circus d' Hiver, Paris, 1966, elephants and tigers sat up and lifted their paws at the exact same time. A tiger leaped though a flaming hoop over the back of two elephants.

Wild animal training

Gentle and cautious wild animal trainers

World famous wild animal trainer

Gunther Gabel Williams performed at Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus, 1968-1990.

Gunther Gabel Williams performed at Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus, 1968-1990.

Big cat shows rare specialty act in modern America

Wild animal training requires courage, time, and patience. All special tricks are coordinated into an act. A satisfied trainer attributes a successful program because of the animals’ high standard of basic training. Tigers are conditioned to cameras, circus personnel, circus’ fans, their’ environment, and their performing place.

Nikolai Pavlenko, a famous wild animal trainer performing in Russia, claims a long stick is an extension of the hand. He can't pet his tigers or put his hands too close to their mouth without getting bitten. The key to working with tigers is never show fear, but apply caution and careful direction while performing with them.

Daring excitement with wild animals is a rare sight to eye-witness in the modern world. Animal right activist, soaring cost of maintaining large circus companies on the road, has made it difficult to enjoy entertainment under the big top. Kenneth Feld is no longer able to keep Ringling Brothers’ Circus traveling around the country. But the circus will continue to survive in the hearts of fans that love it. Small circus companies will continue to put up circus tents. Around the corner, the circus waits for another visionary able to spearhead a circus world comeback.

Lion and tiger video

History of circus references

Facing the Big Cats, author: Clyde Beatty, Published: Doubleday & Company, Garden City, N.Y., First edition, copyright 1965.

Tiger, tiger: My 25 years with the big cats, author: Charly Baumann, published by Playboy Press, New York, first edition, copyright 1975.

Hold That Tiger, autobiography: Mabel Stark with Gertrude Orr, published by The Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho, copyright 1938.

The American Circus: an illustrated history, author: John Culhane, published by Holt, copyright 1989.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus 1982 Program 113 Edition, author: Irvin and Kenneth Feld, Matthews, North Carolina, USA. copyright 1982.

Behind the Big Top, author: David Lewis Hammerstrom, published by A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., copyright 1980, Cranbury, New Jersey, 08512

The Circus in America, author: Charles Philip Fox and Tom Parkinson, publisher: Country Beautiful, Waukesha, Wisconsin, copyright 1969 by Flick-Reedy Education Enterprises, Inc.

Tiger training documentary


Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on January 09, 2020:

Thanks for reading the hub, Bill. I love animals, too. And I don't like to see them suffer. Wild animal training isn't popular in the U.S. like it used to be. But I know there are trainers that love their animals very much. Animal activists aren't into their sport.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 09, 2020:

All animal rights controversy to the side, it takes tremendous courage to get into a ring or cage with one of those cats, more than I have. Very interesting look at big cat training. Loved this history component.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on December 07, 2017:

Thanks for your commentary, Teri. Wild animal acts in the U.S. are tough, no doubt about it, but small circus performances like they produce at that nice circus organization at the Big Apple will still put on shows. I've read some of your circus articles. They are real nice, too. I'm glad Europe is still doing the circus the old-fashioned way.

Teri Silver from The Buckeye State on November 18, 2017:

Interesting article. I have written several on Alexander Lacey, former Ringling trainer (and we're planning another, now that he's back in Europe. The pieces I have are on HP's niche sites). From your photo of Martin Lacey Jr., I wondered if that is Tonga or one of his offspring. I hate to say it but I think we won't see many big cat acts in the U.S., in years to come, except for ones at Circus World or other stable environments. Activists and their manipulative, ignorant agendas are strong-arming politicians, who don't bother to gather facts before they sign off on exotic animal legislation. My dream now is to get to Europe to see the intimate tent shows, complete with the big cats!

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on June 27, 2017:

Thank you very much for your nice comments, Zaton. I'm glad to hear you're a circus fan and love the big cats.

Zaton-Taran from California on June 26, 2017:

Awesome hub on lions and tigers in the circus. these are my two favorite Big Cats - indeed; my fav animals of them all. the King of the Jungle would probably be the attraction I prefer to see if I had to choose, though. Just so majestic and regal.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on March 15, 2017:

Thank you, Larry. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on March 15, 2017:

Cool read!

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on March 15, 2017:

Thank you Venkatachari, when I get a chance I'll look at it.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on March 14, 2017:

Here is the link for it. It is in the Indian language of Hindi, but you can understand the story by watching the movie.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on March 14, 2017:

Thank you for commenting Venkatachari M. If you get a chance please send me a link to the movie you watched. I'd like to see it. It's very special to receive a comment from someone living in India.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on March 14, 2017:

Wonderful article with so elaborate details of big cat facts and their training techniques. The videos are also very interesting.

I used to watch the circus shows when I was young. Our father never made us miss any show that was held in Madras City (now Chennai) during the 1960s and early seventies. I watched the Movie also of Raj Kapoor that dealt with the life of a circus trainer titled "Mera Naam Joker" (my name is Joker).

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on March 14, 2017:

Thank you very much for your nice comments, Genna. It's wonderful you have personal experience with the circus. During the period Gunther Gebel Williams was alive I saw many of his shows, and got close as possible to offstage scenes. At that time I researched the circus for creative stories. I dared post this article, because if you research the circus on Google, you get a lot of articles that are anti-animal training. Videos I posted on this hub show a different side, trainers that love working and caring for animals, at risk, I have to admit, but there is love and affection they feel for wild animals.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on March 14, 2017:

Hi Gilbert. Excellent article. My daughter-in-law is a veterinarian who used to be in charge of vets employed by Ringling Brothers. She left the circus a little over a year ago when she became pregnant with my grandson. I was given a couple of private and impromptu backstage tours, and marveled at the superb care they gave to their animals. I was especially fascinated with the elephants. (I wrote an article for Hubpages about this some time ago.) The trainers clearly loved them, and that love and trust was returned. I was able to stand close to Audrey, a very large female elephant, and stroke her trunk. She was a sweetheart. No restraints were needed, nor fencing, etc. It was a dream come true for me. Thank you for sharing this.

Related Articles