Overlooked No More: Mabel Stark, Fearless Tiger Trainer

Overlooked No More: Mabel Stark, Fearless Tiger Trainer

January 24, 2019

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

By Richard Sandomir

Mabel Stark was taking a walk one evening in Venice, Calif., around 1911 when a sound lured her to the grounds of the Al G. Barnes Circus.

Though the site was locked, “She found a rattletrap, unsecured gate and squeezed herself through,” Roger Smith, a close friend, said. “There she found herself face to face with a mature Bengal named King.”

The sight of the caged tiger in twilight transfixed her. She had been working as a nurse and a carnival hoochie coochie dancer but now, all she could think about was being around tigers. Al Sands, the circus’s manager, hired the eager woman as a horseback rider, but her burning ambition to work with tigers led her to the circus’s wild animal trainer.

Within a couple of years, she was one of the world’s top big cat trainers, never happier than when she was behind steel bars with a dozen or more tigers, commanding them in her chirpy voice to leap through fiery hoops, walk on wires, roll large balls and arrange themselves in a pyramid.

“The intrepid and beautiful tiger-tamer puts her tawny cats through a difficult routine, including that bloodcurdling moment when the music stops, one of the tigers rebels and she, after much whip-cracking, shows that she is master,” The Gazette, a newspaper in Montreal, wrote in 1928.

She trained them with kindness and accepted the perils of facing tigers in close quarters.

“They may be planting violets on me tomorrow,” she told The New York Times in 1922 while taking a break from her act with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Manhattan, “but while I have my health and strength, I’d rather take care of 10 tigers than a sick person.”

“Nerves?” she added. “An animal trainer can’t have nerves. I haven’t had any since I gave up nursing.”

Stark — nicknamed “Tiger Girl” and “Crazy Mabel” — was among the most celebrated trainers in a field dominated by men like Clyde Beatty, the renowned lion tamer and circus owner. In 1934, after two decades of her performing with tigers, the circus historian Earl Chapin May praised Stark as a premier trainer.

“She continues to be without equal in America,” May wrote in The Baltimore Sun, “and for all I know, without a rival elsewhere in the world.”

She spent most of her life among tigers, until she was about 80: nearly 30 years as a circus performer and another 30 years at Jungleland, the animal theme park in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where she raised cubs into performers.

But her devotion to her tigers cost her dearly. Her 5-foot-3, 100-pound body was covered with more than 700 stitches from being bitten, gouged and clawed by her co-workers, whom she never blamed for the many maulings.

She nearly lost her life in 1928, when she was on tour with John Robinson’s Circus in Bangor, Maine. Entering the big top with a reported 6,000 fans, she was unaware that her tigers had not been fed for 24 hours before they were led from the circus’s train to face her.

After slipping in mud, she was attacked by two of her tigers. Sheik tore into her left thigh, while Zoo chewed her right leg. The deltoid muscle of one of her shoulders was ripped away, as was one of her breasts. Her scalp had nearly been torn off. Blood filled her boots. She was rescued by the circus’s lion tamer and an attendant who dragged her out of the cage while fending off the tigers with guns and spears.

“I wondered into how many pieces I would be torn,” she recalled in “Hold That Tiger” (1938), an autobiography she wrote with Gertrude Orr.

About 300 stitches were needed to close her wounds. She was told to take a year to recover, but returned to her tigers in six weeks.

The appeal of training tigers — but not, as she would say, taming them — never diminished for her.

“For me, there is no greater thrill than stepping into a cageful of those glorious beasts and matching wits with them,” she wrote.

Her exploits inspired a novel, “The Final Confession of Mabel Stark” (2001), by Robert Hough, and last year she was the subject of a documentary, “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer,” by Leslie Zemeckis, that used footage of her confidently working with her tigers at Jungleland.

Hough, whose book is narrated by Stark’s character as she reflects on a career that at times seemed fantastical and difficult to document, wrote in an email, “I became overtaken with the desire to narrate the action in her voice and start putting her in scenes with others, and that all spells ‘novel.’ Also, at that point, nobody other than the odd circus historian had heard of her.”

Mary Ann Haynie was born in either Tennessee or Kentucky on Dec. 9, 1888, to Hardie Baxter and Lela (Pettypool) Haynie, who were poor sharecroppers. Mary began working in tobacco fields as a toddler. When she was a teenager, her father died, and a year or so later, after remarrying, her mother died.

During a court proceeding following her mother’s death, Mary, then about 17, said she did not want to live with her stepfather, whom she considered to be a cruel man. But her six younger siblings stayed with him — creating a lifelong rift that left her feeling abandoned by her immediate family. She lived with an aunt for a while, and became a nurse at a hospital in Louisville, although the extent of her education and medical duties are not known.

“How much nursing she did, I don’t know,” Linda Barber, one of her great-nieces, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve done some research and there were no accredited nursing schools at the time in Louisville.”

She did not like the job or stay in it for long.

Smith, her friend, said in an email that Stark took up erotic dancing in 1909 but quit two years later. She found lodging in a rooming house in Venice and went looking for a job.

When she took a walk and heard King on the circus grounds, she had her epiphany. She had to work with tigers.

She was tutored by Louis Roth, the circus’s animal trainer, whom she married in 1913, and was on her way to stardom with an act that included wrestling with Rajah, a nearly 500-pound tiger.

She performed with circuses until 1938, when she joined Jungleland. Except for a couple of years spent as a riveter at Lockheed Aircraft during World War II, she stayed at the compound until nearly her 80th birthday. After divorcing Roth, she married three more times, to men involved with circuses or wild animals. Her last husband, Eddie Trees, died in the 1950s.

She once confided in Smith that life without her tigers would be meaningless.

“ ‘If ever I can’t have my tigers, it’s sayonara, my friend,’ ” Smith, a cage hand at Jungleland, recalled in the email what Stark had told him. “ ‘And I’ve got a nifty little .38 that will do the job just fine.’ ”

She would be taken from her tigers. Jungleland’s general manager fired her in November of 1967, saying the park’s insurer would no longer cover her. She was told never to return to the compound.

Five months later, one of the tigers, Goldie, escaped from her exercise pen on a crowded day at the park and was quickly shot dead.

Stark was distraught at the news. Had she been summoned from her nearby house, she felt she could have guided Goldie safely back.

Several days later, she took an overdose of barbiturates and tied a dry cleaner’s bag over her face.

Her body was found on April 20, 1968.

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