A brief history of lion taming

Thomas Chipperfield is Britain’s last lion trainer. He was denied a license for him to continue performing. Chipperfield plans to appeal the decision, which marks the end of Britain’s long-standing tradition of lion-taming. The decision reflects the gradual change in attitudes of the public towards circuses and an increasing sense that forcing wild animals to perform unnatural tricks can be cruel and dangerous.

These views have existed for many years, even though it took nearly 200 to ban them. Since its beginning in the early nineteenth Century, lion taming has been a source of both horror and awe. The taming of lions has attracted people from all walks of life, and their performances have both been praised as well as condemned.

The Lion of His Day

Isaac Van Amburgh was the first lion trainer to become famous in Britain. Van Amburgh, who was born in Fishkill, New York State, and toured Europe from 1838 to 1845, became renowned for his performances of big cats. Van Amburgh’s act included inserting a lamb in the lion’s cage and his head into his biggest lion. Edwin Landseer, an artist who was a fan of Van Amburgh, created a famous portrait depicting the lion trainer.

Van Amburgh was praised for his bravery but also received criticism. The authorities prohibited the project when the American proposed to take his biggest lion in a hot-air balloon. They were convinced that “if death occurs without even the slightest scientific pretext,” it would impose a heavy responsibility on all parties involved in such an absurd exhibition (Morning Chronicle September 24, 1838).

A journalist from The Examiner, reviewing a lion tamer performance in 1838, objected to the “thrusting of his face into the lion’s mouth,” which he considered “a piece of gratuitous impropriety towards the animal, an extremely disagreeable display for the audience, and most importantly, a highly dangerous proceeding for the performer.” A certain level of risk was acceptable and gave lion-taming its thrill. However, excessive risk was condemned by the public.

Lion queens

A new trend soon swept through the menagerie industry: the female lion trainer. Menagerists were looking for new personnel to increase the tension in the lion-taming show. They settled on the concept of a ‘lion queen.’ In 1839, Miss Hilton was the first lion queen to enter the Stepney Fair lion enclosure. Other lion queens quickly followed her. In the late 1840s, a female tamer was a must for any manager.

Not everyone liked the idea of a woman performing with wild animals. The lion queen craze died out in 1850 when tamer Ellen Bright, who was from Kent, was killed by an angry tiger. Witnesses claim that the accident occurred as Bright, then 17 years old, was about to finish her last performance.

According to the Daily News, the woman wanted to do a trick on the lion and pushed the tiger away, “slightly” striking it with a whip she held in her hand. The animal “growled as if angry” and immediately tripped her with its paw. It then “seized her furiously, by the neck and inserted the teeth of its upper jaw into her chin and, when closing its mouth inflicted a frightful wound in her throat.”

This shocking incident sparked a wave of passionate protests against lionesses. A journalist from Stamford Mercury praised “the graceful attraction of Miss Bright” and regretted “the folly” of “exposing such a perfect form to ruthless danger” by her “ill advised tampering with caged monsters”. In The Morning Chronicle, another writer denounced the lion-taming spectacle as futile, brutal, and a show that “hardens nature and makes it fearful and pity-filled.” The motives of both the performers and the spectators have been scrutinized once again, leading to a national period of soul-searching.

Cruelty towards animals

Even in the 19th Century, lion taming was criticized for the cruelty that it caused to animals. Van Amburgh used violence to subdue his big cats. He hit them with a barbell. Rumors also circulated that he had his lions declawed and their teeth filed. In 1881, RSPCA condemned all lion taming shows as “an exhibit of successful cruelty,” in which “big animal are punished into sulky obey or are made howl with fury.”

In 1874, the Leeds Mercury reported that Frederick Hewitt, a keeper, forced a group of hyenas into a flaming hoop, “saturated in naphtha, and then lit.” Many of the animals had been “severely burnt.” Some animals had “raw wounds… where blood oozed”. The RSPCA prosecuted Hewitt for abuse and for calling for an immediate end to these performances. The case was dismissed due to a technicality in the law, but it opened the door for other successful prosecutions of circus animals.

Too far?

Showpeople were also accused of exploiting non-human animals, as well as children and disabled people. Other than women, non-Europeans, children, and people with disabilities also worked as tamers. This drew criticism from their contemporaries. In 1866, magistrates from Nottingham condemned the performance of Daniel Day, a five-year-old boy who had entered the den of the lions in his father’s menagerie. In 1870, a “dwarf named Tommy Dodd” who performed with lions at Aberdeen was criticized. In 1872, outrage erupted when lions killed one-armed Thomas McCarty in a Bolton menagerie.

Many saw this practice as exploitative and voyeuristic and demanded its termination. The lion-taming acts survived public opposition despite the anger that arose after serious accidents and deaths. They attracted large audiences throughout the 20th Century. In recent decades, its popularity has declined, largely due to an increase in animal rights activism.

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