How Lion Taming Works

By: Debra Ronca

Lion tamer Dieter Farell of the Sarassani circus in Duesseldorf, Germany, in 1964. See more pictures of big cats.

­If nothing else, lion taming makes for a great metaphor. Teachers tame lions when they discipline a group of rowdy students. Business people tame lions when they assuage an angry customer or steady a snarling boss. Parents tame lions when they try to talk reason to their misbehaving teens. Taming a lion means approaching something intimidating and powerful and using your wits and learned strategies to disarm the beast.

But lion taming also has its literal meaning -- to tame, or rather train, the giant feline. (Nowadays, people in the field wince at the term "tame" and prefer the word "train.") When we hear the words lion taming, most of us imagine a dashing man in a top hat and tails, twirling a chair and cracking a whip at growling big cats. Indeed, that's what the lion taming acts of the circus have generally looked like, an­d they've been taking place for over 200 years.


­The first circus came to the United States in 1783. At that time, the most po­pular animal act was the equestrian display. Most circuses had a traveling menagerie of wild animals, but they were primarily for display. They were kept in small cages, and spectators paid to take a look at the animals up close.

But once the first lion tamer fearlessly stepped into the ring with a big cat, lion taming became one of the most popular acts in the circus. Tamers both male and female, dressed in fancy costumes, put on daring, theatrical shows displaying the mastery of man over beast. The methods and acts evolved over the years as our perception of animal treatment also evolved.

A lion is a wild animal with 3-inch (7.5-centimeter) claws and a mouth that opens wider than your head is long -- 1 foot (30 centimeters). Its jaws can crush a bull's spine. Makes you wonder why anyone would even attempt to tame this beast. But they do. How?




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.


Lion Taming Techniques

In the past, lion tamers used chairs and whips to work with lions during circus acts. ­
In the past, lion tamers used chairs and whips to work with lions during circus acts. ­
Jacobsen/Stringer/­Getty Images

Lion taming and training techniques have evolved over the years. The first known lion tamer, Henri Martin, earned the trust of his big cats by introducing himself to them slowly over time. At first, he interacted with his tiger through the bars of a cage, earning himself a few scratches for his trouble. Then, he entered the tiger's cage with bars separating his space from the tiger's. Introducing first his head, then his shoulders through the bars, he eventually worked his entire body into the cage with tiger. At this point, the tiger was used to Martin's presence.

­This style went out of fashion after Isaac Van Amburgh entered the scene. He used violent methods to control his big cats. When Clyde Beatty made his debut about a century later, he used a whip, a gun and a chair to command his cats. You might be wondering why a chair would intimidate an animal as powerful as a lion. It's not that the lion is afraid of the chair -- it's that the lion is confused by the chair [source: Morris]. Cats are single-minded, and the points of the chair's four legs bobbing around confuse the lion enough that it loses its train of thought. Casually put, the chair distracts the lion from wanting to claw the lion tamer's face off.


Today, lion taming (or training) techniques are more humane and exclude crowbars, bullwhips and guns. The animals aren't trained via scare tactics. Most of today's lion trainers employ a combination of repetition, trust and encouragement to train their big cats. Some animal trainers do use whips -- but only to distinguish their personal space from the lion's [source: Finn]. Once an animal trusts and respects a trainer, the trainer can teach the animal to perform tricks or behave in a certain way in exchange for food and positive reinforcement. A big cat trainer usually raises the cat from a cub, bonding with it throughout the development process. Most of the lions and tigers you see in exotic animal shows were born in captivity.

We'll learn more about today's lion training techniques on the next page.


Training Lions and Operant Conditioning

Lion tamer Jim Roose feeding a lion with a lump of meat in his mouth in October 1949. This lion is the mate of the lioness that eventually killed Roose's brother and daughter.
Lion tamer Jim Roose feeding a lion with a lump of meat in his mouth in October 1949. This lion is the mate of the lioness that eventually killed Roose's brother and daughter.
George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Most animal trainers utilize a theory called operant conditioning when working with exotic animals. Operant conditioning, a theory created by psychologist B.F. Skinner, is a fundamental concept in behavioral psychology.

With operant conditioning, trainers teach animals to connect a behavior with a cue (or signal), and then reward the animal for correct behavior. Whenever the animal behaves in the desired way -- or even close to the desired way -- the trainer offers positive reinforcement (usually in the form of food). Skinner called this method capturing. The idea is that positive reinforcement of a seemingly random behavior increases the likelihood of it happening again. Applying a technique called shaping helps refine the behavior.


­­Let's look at an example: You're a lion trainer and you want to train a lion to turn in a circle to the right when you snap your fingers. Using operant conditioning, you'd reward the lion for any small movement to the right. Some trainers use a target to help shape this behavior -- perhaps a long stick or pole. The lion might touch its nose to the end of the pole and get a reward. Then you'd begin moving the pole in a circular motion, providing reinforcement as the lion follows the target. Eventually the lion will follow the target to move in a complete circle.

Next, you'd use classical conditioning to train the lion to turn at your finger-snap cue, instead of following the target, by associating the behavior with the snapping of your fingers. Soon the lion will turn when you snap your fingers.

If you're a dog owner, these training techniques probably sound familiar. But dogs are domesticated animals. Lions are not. Is a wild animal ever really tame? Read on to find out why the answer generally is "no."


Can you really tame a lion?

Trainer Joe Clavall, aka Tarzan, sits amidst some of his 12 Atlas lions and lionesses, while they rehearse for a show by Jack Hylton's circus at Earl's Court in London.
Trainer Joe Clavall, aka Tarzan, sits amidst some of his 12 Atlas lions and lionesses, while they rehearse for a show by Jack Hylton's circus at Earl's Court in London.
Maurice Amber/Stringer/­Getty Images

Millions of people have viewed the YouTube video sensation, "Christian the Lion," which shows the touching 1972 reunion between a lion named Christian and his former owners. Christian's owners had raised him from a cub until he was about a year old, at which time a conservationist helped them to introduce Christian to the wild. When they paid Christian a visit at the animal reserve, cameras were rolling to capture the lion's joy at seeing his former friends. Christian remembered them and even nuzzled their faces with affection like a regular housecat. Some people might think this is proof that humans can, indeed, tame wild animals. Is it?

For every Christian the Lion, there's a Siegfried and Roy. Known worldwide for the love and pampering they showered on their feline charges, Siegfried and Roy's successful Vegas tiger act ran for more than a decade. However, it ended in tragedy after one of the tigers attacked Roy Horn during a 2003 performance. To this day, no one is exactly sure what prompted their prize tiger Montecore to become aggressive. The cat attacked Horn so fiercely that he suffered partial paralysis and a crushed windpipe.


After his recovery, Horn insisted that the tiger was only trying to protect him from something -- perhaps a stroke suffered onstage -- and was dragging him offstage to safety. Others theorized an audience member's beehive hairdo distracted the tiger, or that a spectator provoked it somehow [source: AP]. Federal investigators never determined why the tiger turned violent. Whatever the cause, the incident illustrates that wild animals can be aggressive and unpredictable, no matter how lovable or docile they may seem. Siegfried and Roy raised Montecore from a cub and had worked with him for five years before the attack.

Why do tamed lions attack?

Let's face it. A circus or animal act isn't natural habitat for a lion or tiger. When was the last time you saw a lion on the African plains leap through a flaming hoop? Most animal advocacy groups state that animal attacks occur because of animal rage or frustration. Wild animals each have different needs related to diet, socialization, environment, living conditions and climate. Yet most exotic animals are all kept under the same conditions. So it should be no surprise that an animal one day acts unpredictably. Since 1990, captive wild cats have attacked more than 110 people, many fatally [source: Dawn].

Most organizations that keep exotic animals claim to use humane training techniques, but some activist groups claim that, behind closed doors, animals may be poked, prodded or hit [source: PETA]. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed the Animal Welfare Act into law in 1966, and the USDA routinely inspects circuses, zoos and other animal handling organizations for violations. All reports are available to the public via their Web site.


Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, once stressed that you can train a wild animal, but you can never tame a wild animal. And famed lion tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams used to say that a wild animal is like a loaded gun -- it can go off at any time [source: CNN].

Perhaps it's the loaded gun factor that has attracted audiences to lion taming acts for so many years. If the beast weren't wild, would we be on the edge of our seats?


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