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A female lion-tamer in Victorian dress stands in front of five lions perched on pedestals
Lion tamer Madame Pianka (Charlotte Bishop) poses with five lions in a publicity photograph, circa 1902.

It’s always a thrill to receive a new book from the printer, and we’re particularly excited about this new release, the latest in our Animal Publics series. In Fighting nature: travelling menageries, animal acts and war shows, Peta Tait reveals the captivating and sometimes disturbing history of animal performances in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Travelling menageries became widespread in Europe, Britain and the USA during the nineteenth century. Some acts featured elaborate military re-enactments, real and simulated violence, and nationalistic displays of pomp and ceremony. They also had a knack for attracting controversy. Female lion tamers, and acts that involved a tamer putting his or her head into a lion’s mouth, proved particularly scandalous, especially in the colonies in Australia, New Zealand and southern Africa. In this edited extract, Peta Tait describes how feeding displays played a central part in these performances, and how spectators responded to them with a mixture of fascination and disgust.

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An animal tamer act with lions and tigers in a small cage remained the major menagerie attraction in the second half of the 19th century, and it now routinely involved the handler putting his or her head into a lion’s mouth. But some spectators were not convinced that this feat, or the display of carnivores eating raw meat, should be entertainments. One of the main criticisms was that such stunts demeaned the humans involved and reduced them to the level of brute nature …

In England, Bostock and Wombwell’s menagerie charged spectators extra to watch the animals being fed at set times. These shows involved carnivorous animals including lions, tigers, bears, wolves and hyenas being fed quantities of raw meat. The attendants would become covered in animal blood during the process of delivering the meat to the cage, so it was literally a bloody spectacle … Prejudices about how animals lived in nature were reinforced by feeding displays in the contrived and unnatural circumstances of captivity. The spectacle of animal feeding, however, became fused with notions of human degradation because of human proximity to the animals.

Cage acts that included the feat of the tamer putting his or her head in the lion’s mouth often followed or preceded such displays. The juxtaposition of a tamer act and a feeding spectacle led one to be associated with the other. There was an impression that tamers who entered cages and undertook acts with wild animals were at risk of becoming animal food …

Hugues Le Roux describes the experience of watching lions, tigers, wolves and bears being fed as part of a menagerie exhibition in France. The spectator enters a darkened booth that has a strong smell and, as a gas light was turned on, two keepers enter. They are wheeling a barrow full of horsemeat and are covered in blood. A third keeper calls out that the animals are about to be fed. Initially, the keepers pretend to put the meat forward to the lions while presenting them with an empty hook. Le Roux’s vivid account continues:

As [the lions] pant with rage, their breath rises in clouds of smoke, scattering the sawdust of their litter. They roar and dribble with hunger. At last the meat is within their reach, and they drag the huge pieces towards their jaws, too large to pass through the bars at first, there is a moment’s struggle . . . [Afterwards] the expression of satisfaction after rage.

Le Roux’s description implies that the animals were kept hungry for the demonstration, and that feeding was the focus of intense interest. Some cages were even open to the public to enter. A sleeping lion was woken, pulled by the ears, and Le Roux was invited to step into the cage; he nervously moved forward and touched the lion’s leg.
In 1879 during Bostock and Wombwell’s feeding show, two lionesses leant on their cage doors, opening them. They leapt out among the spectators, who seemed to think that this was part of the show and so did not disperse. The lionesses were eventually enticed back into their cages without mishap. By 1880, the feeding was followed by a pet dog being placed in the cage of a docile tiger – they had been raised together. An elephant keeper, Thomas Bridgeman, however, mistakenly let the dog into the cage of a different tiger, leaping into the cage to rescue the dog upon realising his mistake. The dog did not survive …

A promotional poster for the Great Eastern Circus Menagerie, 1872, shows a hunter firing pistols surrounded by attacking lions
An 1872 advertisement for the Great Eastern Circus Menagerie depicts a hunter firing pistols surrounded by attacking lions. Courtesy of the Pfening Collection, Ohio State University.

As Le Roux explains, it took ‘nerve’ to work with lions, and it was only ‘[t]he boldest of individuals who put their heads two or three times a day into the lion’s mouth’ ... Gruesome occurrences that overlapped with the feeding exhibition gave notoriety to such shows, which were, by then, relatively common. Le Roux asks whether concern about an attack prevented spectators from attending the show.

Can I say that fear of such an accident is ever sufficiently strong to make me pause on the threshold of the menagerie? No, I cherish, and like me, you also cherish, the hope that someday perhaps we may see a lion-tamer eaten.

Paul Hervieu was an eyewitness to a mishap in July 1886 in which Bidel tripped on his fork and fell during a performance at Neuilly. Sultan, a black-maned lion, took the opportunity and attacked. Bidel’s coat was completely ripped, and his torn flesh exposed. Hervieu outlined the crowd’s emotional reactions to this event. There were cries from the audience, followed by complete silence, and the hissing of the gas lighting could be heard as Sultan stopped and Bidel lay motionless. Then Sultan took two steps forward and put his paws on the tamer’s shoulders.
There was uproar among the audience, with shouting and screaming. Hervieu felt that the lion played with the tamer, almost accidentally causing flesh and head wounds, until two attendants pushed forward with iron bars, and the lion stopped and retreated. Hervieu was ‘distressed, horrified’, but his companion was keen to see the attack unfold, and Hervieu also quoted someone behind him saying, ‘I was for the lion.’ ...

The cover of Fighting Nature by Peta Tait
In Britain, protective legislation against animal cruelty did not extend to exotic animals in menageries until 1900. The law stated that depriving animals of food only applied to domesticated species and there did not seem to be restrictions on the use of iron prods against lions … Eventually more systematic animal husbandry made it possible to discard irons and older crude methods of control by force for big cats. Feeding displays were phased out with the advent of, and touring of, more complex acts with trained animals by the turn of the 20th century.

Edited extract from Fighting Nature: Travelling menageries, animal acts and war shows by Peta Tait, available now from Sydney University Press.

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