Circus animals who turned on their trainers
America doesn’t really do circuses anymore, at least not like it used to. Today, when the circus comes to town, it’s either human-only performers, or it’s picketed by animal rights activists. Books, documentaries, and horrific accidents have convinced most would-be circus patrons that the whole business is both antiquated and cruel. Not only do circus animals suffer from abusive training practices and low-quality care, but the circus environment is so far removed from their natural way of living that it sometimes makes them a little crazy. Add to that the fact that a wild animal will always be a wild animal, and their human handlers are in danger, too.
You don’t hear about circus animals attacking their handlers that much anymore, at least not in the context of American performances. Internationally, animal-on-trainer violence happens much more frequently, since circuses and animal shows enjoy greater popularity in nations where public concern for animal welfare is mostly trumped by public concern for people. Such places are slower to adopt regulations and to convince people that animal cruelty should not be a spectator sport — but even so, horrific attacks like the ones by these circus animals and performing animals are sure to one day make pretty much everyone think twice about buying a ticket to an animal show.
The elephant that went berserk
Despite her adorable name, Tyke the elephant was already known for her difficult and dangerous behavior when she killed her trainer and critically injured a groom during a 1994 Honolulu circus performance.
It’s almost not fair to call her “difficult and dangerous” — she was an elephant, and she should have been living wild where she could be as difficult and dangerous as she wanted. Instead, she was sold to the circus. Signs that she was not cut out for the job came early — a trainer who worked with Tyke years earlier told the LA Times she would “resist the training” and “run away when you tried to do anything with her.”
The year before the attack, Tyke injured one of her trainers, and in a separate incident smashed through a doorway in an apparent escape attempt. On the night of the attack, she entered the ring rolling something in front of her, but it wasn’t a log. It was the body of her critically injured groom. Her trainer tried to intervene and she trampled him to death, before breaking out of the tent, trampling a third person, and then going on a rampage during rush hour traffic in the Kakaako business district. Her bid for freedom was short-lived. Police shot her 87 times, and she died in the street. Since that day there have been no live-animal circus performances in Honolulu, not really for the animals’ sake but because people don’t want them there.
Lion vs. pokey thing
Circuses in Ukraine are alive and well — the National Circus of Ukraine does not seem to be at all shy about its use of performing animals (including lions, tigers, porcupines, and what appears to be a very unfortunate pelican). And that’s despite a relatively recent lion attack that sent spectators screaming out the doors and one trainer to the hospital.
According to The Guardian, in 2010, a lion attacked trainer Oleksie Pinko during a performance, and then another lion joined in because attacking living things is kind of what lions do, and then someone in the audience filmed the whole thing because that’s kind of what humans do. Meanwhile, everyone else decided that survival beats YouTube fame, so they grabbed their kids — some of whom were just 10 feet away from the violence — and got out of there.
Other trainers tried to intervene by poking the lions with rods, and the lions just bit down harder. Someone else fired a water cannon at the attackers, and eventually Pinko was rescued and sent to a local hospital for emergency surgery. He survived the attack, and as far as we can tell, big cats are still a part of the National Circus of Ukraine’s show, so no lesson learned.
Could you stop attacking that guy long enough for these irons to heat up?
Lion attacks during circus performances are not a new thing. In fact, death by lion has a long and glorious tradition among traveling circuses, and although no one would ever say so out loud, in the 1800s the possibility of witnessing an attack was kind of also a selling point.
In 1872, a lion trainer named Thomas Maccarte, who was missing one arm because of a previous lion attack that somehow failed to convince him that a career change was in order, was performing in Bolton, England, when his lions decided they’d had just about enough of him and killed him. For the full, bloody, blow-by-blow you can read the New York Times‘ account of the attack in their archives, but try not to eat anything immediately beforehand.
To make a horrific story less permanently psychologically damaging, let’s just say that Maccarte, who was dressed as a Roman gladiator, tripped and fell in the ring and the lions saw an opportunity. Circus officials tried to stop them by firing blanks, and then by shooting them with BB guns from the rifle galleries, and then by beating them with “irons” that had been heated in a nearby fire, so at this point not much can really be said about the circus’ safety procedures. By the time they actually managed to drive the lions away, it was too late for Maccarte, who died from massive blood loss.
Dinner and a horror show
Guests at a Hamburg, Germany, dinner show in 2009 were starting on the first course of their $163 meal when five tigers and their trainer entered the ring. So the good news is the guests were probably just eating salad or bread or something and not a rare sirloin. The bad news is someone was about to get mauled by tigers, so they probably totally lost their appetites afterward.
Just like the unfortunate Thomas Maccarte, 28-year-old Christian Walliser tripped and fell and the tigers said, “Heck, it is a dinner show,” and then pounced on him. Happily, this particular show was better prepared for such an incident and did not have to go back to the kitchen to put kebab sticks on the stovetop or anything. According to The Guardian, they had water cannons and fire extinguishers on hand and immediately descended on the attacking tigers, but not before Walliser nearly lost his left hand and sustained injuries to his head and upper body.
A physician who happened to be in the audience attended Walliser until help arrived, because evidently the show’s safety people had the water cannon thing covered but didn’t hire a doctor. Walliser went on to write a book and continues to work with tigers today. So what we can really learn from this story and others like it is that you should always avoid falling down in the presence of large, predatory felines. Maybe even the smaller ones, too.
Bears on ice? Really?
Performing lions roar and sit up and jump through hoops and stuff, but perhaps no circus animal is more greatly humiliated than the circus bear. These poor creatures have to suffer the indignities of wearing tutus and pointy hats and riding bicycles, and sometimes even weirder things, like ice skating. No, really.
In the fall of 2009, CNN reported that a bear attacked two people during a rehearsal for a Russian circus performance entitled “Bears on Ice,” which was exactly as ridiculous as it sounds. The bear was evidently on ice skates when the attack occurred, but he must have been pretty danged graceful on them because he somehow managed to kill a circus administrator and maul a trainer who tried to intervene without the further indignity of an embarrassing fall.
“It is unclear what caused the bear to attack,” the CNN report says, which is pretty obtuse if you think about it. Forcing a bear to wear ice skates doesn’t seem like an obvious enough reason? Try putting a pair of ice skates on your cat and see what happens. You’re probably not going to come out of that one unscathed.
Don't mind the blood, the tiger just wants to help
One of the world’s most infamous tiger attacks happened in October 2003, when Roy Horn, half of the Siegfried and Roy duo, was attacked by a 380-pound tiger named Mantecore during a Las Vegas show. According to Today, a thorough investigation failed to reveal the reason for the attack — this despite a lot of really wild theories, which include activists somehow provoking the tiger without anyone noticing or that someone in the audience might have used “far-UV or high ultra sonics” to trigger the attack. Siegfried and Roy, on the other hand, say the tiger was actually just helping his trainer as a mother tiger does with her cubs, so you know, it was all very sweet and innocent despite the horrifying loss of blood. “I will forever believe it was his concern for my safety and well-being that caused him to act as he did,” Horn later said in a statement. Hmmm.
The tiger damaged a critical artery, so Horn also suffered a stroke and became partially paralyzed. The attack not only ended his career, but also the long-running Siegfried and Roy production. The tiger was forgiven, though, eventually returning to the Siegfried and Roy Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage hotel, where he died in 2014.
They're called killer whales for a reason
It’s dark times for SeaWorld. What was once a popular destination for families now has a reputation as a land of sadness and death. And it all kind of started when an orca attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau.
According to ABC News, the whale, called Tilikum, grabbed Brancheau by the ponytail and pulled her into the pool, then began violently swinging her around. An autopsy later determined that she died from a combination of blunt force trauma to the head, neck, and torso, plus drowning. The attack happened during a performance.
It wasn’t the first time Tilikum killed someone, either. In 1991 he was one of three whales responsible for the death of trainer Keltie Lee Byrne. Tilikum was described as “a difficult animal,” and there were only a few trainers who would work with him.
After Brancheau’s death, CNN aired a documentary titled “Blackfish,” which retold the horrifying story and argued that captivity had made Tilikum dangerously unstable. Twenty-one million people tuned in, and suddenly the beloved family theme park was evil. Of course, SeaWorld also funds a major rescue and rehabilitation program for marine life, and it is a top contributor to oceanic conservation and research programs, so maybe a boycott isn’t the best way to go, but nothing is black-and-white. Except orcas. Okay, maybe let’s stop messing with orcas.
Um, you do know that thing has venom, right?
Maybe you’ve missed it, but snake charming is still a thing. You know, guy plays the oboe, snake rises out of the basket and sways, guy doesn’t get killed. Sounds like pretty dull entertainment, now that you mention it. (Why watch some dude with an oboe and a cobra when you can watch Neville Longbottom take down a giant snake with the sword of Gryffindor?) Anyway. Snake charming is still a thing.
According to the BBC, Ali Khan Samsudin, a Malaysian who called himself “The Snake King,” did more than just the oboe/basket/cobra thing. He was also known for locking himself up in rooms with snakes and scorpions and then hanging out there for days, which let’s face it actually seems way more boring from an observer’s perspective than the whole oboe/basket/cobra thing.
In 2006 one of his subjects bit him, but it was not his first bite (in fact he’d been bitten nearly 100 times), so he kind of just shrugged it off and went on with his life, which turned out to have only two days left in it. At the end of that two days he became very ill, was rushed to a hospital, and then died before he could be given antivenin. So the moral of the story is, when a cobra bites you, go to a hospital. Yes, it’s complex, but try to understand.
Circus of the scars
America’s epiphany about the general suckiness of performing animal shows came pretty late — in 1987 we were still okay enough with the circus thing that there was actually an annual circus television event called Circus of the Stars that ran for 17 years and featured celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, William Shatner, and a bunch of other people you’ve probably never heard of because you’re not old. It was kind of like Dancing with the Stars with more mortal peril.
Not every performance was an animal act (in fact most of them weren’t) but the animal acts that were there were kind of unconventionally terrifying. Performers were stars, not animal trainers, so it’s not really that surprising that accidents and attacks happened sometimes. According to the LA Times, dancer Juliet Prowse was bitten not once but twice by the same 80-pound leopard because for some reason after the first time she didn’t ask the producers if she could switch to the flying trapeze. The first bite landed close to her carotid artery, so it could have been a lot worse; the second bite left “only minor injuries,” but why push your luck with a large cat when you could push your luck on the flying trapeze instead?
Tae kwon do monkeys
Despite the circus animal horrors we’ve mentioned so far, this one is actually pretty hilarious because it doesn’t involve any actual death and also includes monkeys that can do tae kwon do. And there really is nothing better at making your day happy than monkeys that can do tae kwon do.
In 2009, the Telegraph brought us the delightful tale of 42-year-old Lo Wung and his troupe of trained monkeys, who were performing outside a shopping center in China. Like so many other mauled-by-his-animals trainers before him, Lo slipped and the monkeys started kicking him in the head and punching him in the face. “They were leaping and jumping all over the place,” said an observer. “It was better than a Bruce Lee film.”
The trainer tried to fend off the attacking monkeys with a stick, and one of the monkeys countered with another stick. There was a long, tension-filled pause as monkey and trainer stared each other down, then they leaped at one another in slow motion … that last bit didn’t actually happen, but it totally should have.
After the trainer got the monkeys under control, he made them kneel with their hands behind their backs sort of like a Roman general would his conquered enemies, even though it sounds like the monkeys did most of the conquering. And it’s a safe bet the troupe probably never went back to that particular shopping center because you wouldn’t either if you got your butt publicly whooped by a bunch of tae kwon do monkeys.