Mabel Stark: The Lady with the Tigers


Mabel Stark was the most famous female tiger tamer ever. She worked with the animals from 1911 to 1968, was mauled many times, and kept coming back for more, even into her old age.

The story of Stark's early life is hard to pin down accurately, as she embellished the facts liberally to make a good story in various interviews and her autobiography. Most sources agree she was born in Kentucky with the name Mary Haynie, although she said at least once that she was born in Canada. Her birthdate varied, but appears to be around 1889. She was an only child or one of seven, and her parents died within the same month or two years apart when she was 11 or 13 or 17. We know that she was trained as a nurse before she joined a circus as a hoochie-coochie dancer somewhere around 1909. But Stark later claimed she went straight from nursing school to the Al G. Barnes Circus in 1911 to become an animal trainer.

No one starts out in the circus as a tiger tamer, however. Stark was assigned to riding horses, which she hated. She wanted to work with tigers, the most dangerous animal in the circus. Stark approached the circus' head animal trainer, Hungarian Louis Roth, and trained under him -and was even married to him for a short time. Roth would have preferred for Stark to work with lions, but she insisted on tigers. Roth advocated training big cats by rewarding them with meat, as opposed to just beating them into submission as earlier trainers did. In other words, Roth used the carrot and the stick instead of just the stick. Stark's first big cat performance was with two lions and two tigers, and she eventually worked up to as many as 18 tigers at once.  

Stark took in a sickly tiger cub that was rejected by his mother and raised him by hand. Rajah became instrumental in making Stark a star. She developed a shocking signature act in which she wrestled Rajah, causing the audience to believe she was being mauled. She admitted years later that Rajah was actually relieving himself sexually during this act, which looks very much like a vicious attack to anyone not familiar with tiger behavior. Stark started wearing a white uniform at this time so that the audience would not see tiger semen. The white costume became her signature, which she used for the rest of her career.   

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus hired Stark away from Barnes in 1920. By then Stark had divorced Roth and was a star act. She married the circus's accountant Albert Ewing, who was embezzling funds from Ringling. They divorced when the crime was uncovered, but Stark believed she was being punished for her husband's sins when the circus cut all big cat acts in 1925. Ringling chiefs claimed that the cage took too long to assemble and tear down during a performance. Stark was still under contract, though, and was assigned to a horse act. Her tigers were kept on in the circus's menagerie, which was supervised by Art Rooney. Mabel later claimed that she married her first husbands for practical reasons, but she fell in love with Rooney. They soon married, which surprised other circus employees because Rooney wore makeup and nail polish, and they assumed he was not the marrying kind. Rooney died soon after under circumstances that were not recorded.

Stark was touring with the John Robinson Company when she was badly injured in 1928. The circus train was late getting to the venue in Bangor, Maine, the tigers were getting wet in the rain, and there was no time to feed them before the show. Normally, a cat act would be delayed or cancelled for this reason. But Stark let the show go on. Two hungry tigers named Sheik and Zoo mauled her during the show. Stark's own description of the incident:

"Sheik was right behind me, and caught me in the left thigh, tearing a two-inch gash that cut through to the bone and almost severed my left leg just above the knee. . .I could feel blood pouring into both my boots, but I was determined to go through with the act. . .(Zoo) jumped from his pedestal and seized my right leg, jerking me to the ground. As I fell, Sheik struck out with one paw, catching the side of my head, almost scalping me. . .Zoo gave a deep growl and bit my leg again. He gave it a shake, and planting both forefeet with his claws deep in my flesh, started to chew. . .I wondered into how many pieces I would be torn. . .Most of all I was concerned for the audience. . .I knew it would be a horrible sight if my body was torn apart before their eyes. And all my tigers would be branded as murderers and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in narrow cages instead of being allowed the freedom of the big arena and the pleasure of working. That thought gave me strength to fight."

Stark managed to leave the cage with the help of another animal trainer, and insisted on changing out of her blood-soaked stage clothing before going to the hospital. Doctors sewed muscles and skin back together with 378 stitches, but did not expect her to survive. She was back to work within a few weeks, although the injuries troubled her and she was in and out of hospitals several times over the next two years for further muscle repair.

That was only the first of three serious maulings Stark suffered. In 1933, during a show featuring 18 tigers, one bit through her arm. She finished her act with the arm hanging limp before seeking medical attention. In 1950, Stark survived her third serious mauling, when her right arm was so mangled that it required 175 stitches. Once again, she recovered. But those were just the "severe" maulings -Mabel Stark had many other incidents in which she was injured by a big cat throughout her career. She always blamed herself, or other factors, but never the tigers. She loved them and respected them, but also said there was no such thing as a "tame tiger."  

Stark announced her retirement a couple of times, but always returned to performing. She appeared with various circuses through the 1930s. She worked as a stunt double in the lion-taming scenes for Mae West in the 1933 film I'm No Angel, which West wrote, possibly inspired by Stark's career. Hollywood work introduced Stark to Louis Goebel's Jungleland, a Thousand Oaks, California, facility that housed trained animals for movies. It later became a theme park, and Mabel Stark went to work there in 1938, eventually on a permanent basis. During her 30 years at Jungleland, she also found time to take her tiger act on the road to Europe and Japan. And she got married for the last time. Her fourth (or possibly fifth) husband was menagerie keeper Ed Trees, who died in 1953.

Jungleland was bought and sold several times during Stark's tenure, and the park declined financially through the 1960s (it was finally dismantled in 1969). The new owner in 1968 did not like Stark, and fired her. The 79-year-old tiger tamer did not want to retire. The loss of her job, combined with an incident in which one of her tigers escaped and was killed, sent her into despair. Mabel Stark took an overdose of barbiturates, and was found dead by her housekeeper on April 20, 1968. According to her 1938 autobiography Hold That Tiger, Stark would have preferred to die at the hands of a tiger than by any other means, but it was not to be. She had already survived that fate.