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How Lion Taming Works

The First Lion Tamers

In 1819, a French circus performer named Henri Martin entered a cage with a tiger, shocking the audience when he emerged without a scratch. Martin, a retired horse trainer, soon taught the tiger to obey a series of simple commands. He eventually incorporated lions into his act as well, becoming the first famous lion tamer. Martin earned the big cats' trust by introducing himself to the cage little by little, over time.

The first American lion tamer, Isaac Van Amburgh, stepped into the ring with a lion, tiger and leopard in 1833. Known for his extreme theatrics, Van Amburgh would act out scenes from the Bible -- he would bring a lamb or even a child from the audience into the cage with him. Many historians credit Van Amburgh with being the first man to put his head in a lion's mouth [source: Thayer].

Van Amburgh's tactics were much different from the trust-based training Martin used with his big cats. Van Amburgh routinely beat his cats into submission, sometimes with a crowbar. He defended his abuse by quoting the Bible, Genesis 1:26, "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth." This man-dominates-beast lion taming technique quickly caught on. Van Amburgh became quite famous, at one point performing for Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.

Clyde Beatty became the next big name in lion taming in the mid-1920s, at the peak of wild animal acts. Beatty used a whip and a pistol to keep his big cats in line. His act, like Van Amburgh's, showcased lions as snarling, terrifying beasts over which he exerted control. He was also famous for using the chair method of lion taming. We'll talk more about lion taming techniques on the next few pages.

As years passed, man versus big cat theatrics fell out of fashion. Circus audiences wanted to see softer animal acts. Modern animal trainers like Gunther Gebel-Williams, and Siegfried and Roy spent considerable amounts of time working with their cats, trying to understand their psychology. They did not beat their animals into submission. How did their techniques differ from their predecessors? We'll get into that on the next page.