THE LADY AND THE TIGER
by Rip Rense
Miss Stark was petting a Bengal tiger, there in a photo hanging in the "Paul Eagles Circus Club" section of the restaurant---a zone where legendary circus folk used to hold periodic reunions. I froze in mid-bite.
I had last laid eyes on Mabel Stark when I was eleven years old and she was headlining Jungleland, an amusement park/zoo in Thousand Oaks, California, made infamous when a lion took a bite out of one of Jayne Mansfield's children. My pals and I used to ride bikes to Jungleland long before Jayne Mansfield ever set foot in our home town, and the highlight of our visits was always, without a doubt, Mabel Stark and her big cats.
To our boy-brains, Miss Stark was the strangest creature we had ever seen---a petite, elderly, unsmiling lady with a kind of Harpo Marx hairdo and spangly circus outfit, who commanded her striped charges to leap, growl, prance, roll over, run in circles, punctuating each trick with a twirly show-bizzy flourish of her right hand.
Judging by the twirly flourish---to say nothing of the act of jumping into a ring full of giant slavering felines---my pals and I concluded that the lady must be drunk, and, as boys will do, we giggled and imitated her gesture until convulsed with laughter. Until that is, the day that Miss Stark cowed us into an abrupt silence with a glare so full of indignation that I have never forgotten it.
As I sat there in Philippe's, contemplating the photo, another memory came back---that of reading the lady's obituary one evening in 1968 in the Thousand Oaks News-Chronicle. Miss Stark, it seemed, had retired from the ring after losing some mobility in her body, and not long afterward, her favorite Tiger, Raja, had died. With seemingly nothing left to live for, she drafted a will and farewell note, closed her windows on the world, turned on the gas, and lay down on her kitchen table. She was either 74 or 80, depending on which records you believed.
It was with these long-buried memories that I returned to Thousand Oaks the next day, and see what I might really learn about this woman---and just what led her to spend a life in the company of oversized killer kitties. . .
Jungleland was long gone---driven into bankruptcy in 1968 by the Mansfield incident and other PR problems. The only hints that it ever existed were a restaurant in a nearby mini-mall called The New Jungleland Cafe, and a lyrical configuration of oak trees that I recognized as having partly defined the animal park's boundary. The only beast present was the fearsome, monolithic Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center, now occupying the space where Miss Stark once put her tigers through their paces.
I stopped in at the News-Chronicle, no longer a small-town daily but part of a chain called the Star, to pick up whatever articles about the lady I could find.
Not only was the obituary I remembered still on file---but it had been published almost 27 years ago to the very day!
I paused, wondering if something more mysterious than curiosity had prompted my little research sojourn. Perhaps Miss Stark's spirit was hanging around, yearning for one more bit of ink; one more headline.
The obit's first paragraph, written by redoubtable News-Chronicle scribe Carol Bidwell, had aimed for the poetic: "Mabel Stark Trees," it read, "who had faced a growling death with flashing claws almost daily in the tiger cage for the last 50 years, is dead."
I learned that Miss Stark had been married for a few years to a "menagerie superintendant" named Eddie Trees, who had passed away in 1953. There were references to her life touring the world with circuses, 18 maimings by tigers (!), and her semi-retirement/performance career at Jungleland. Thousand Oaks had been her home base since 1938; the town even elected her its first honorary mayor in 1957.
It was the death of her beloved fifteen-year-old tiger bearing the blood-curdling name of. . .Dale. . .that had apparently prompted the lady's retirement, and, one might glean, her ultimate retirement.
To my delight, the obit also mentioned that Miss Stark was "at home behind a typewriter," and had written an autobiography. It was entitled, not surprisingly, "Hold That Tiger" (by Mabel Stark, as told to Gertrude Orr, published in 1938.)
I put down the obit and headed directly for the Thousand Oaks Library, where I talked my way into limited, and very carefully supervised, access to their only copy of the book---autographed by Mabel herself! A prized part of the library's local history collection. I turned the pages with due reverence. . .
The cover illustration looked more like something out of Winnie The Pooh than Frank Buck. It depicted was a young, beaming Stark standing behind a big, fluffy (and possibly smiling ) tiger, her arms wrapped lovingly around the animal's neck. The beast looked at least as menacing as Garfield, Miss Stark as proud as a parent..
The book's contents weren't quite as cute.
"For more than twenty-five years, I have been breaking, working, and training tigers," it began. "I have been clawed and slashed and chewed until there is hardly an inch of my body unscarred by tooth or nail. But I love these big cats as a mother loves her children, even when they are the most wayward. They are killers because they know their own strength. They can be subdued by never conquered, except by love. And that is the secret of all successful animal training. I have learned it at the risk of my life. . .
"Mine may seem a strange profession for a woman, but it is not physical strength that counts in the big cage. . .For me there is no greater thrill than stepping into a cageful of those glorious beasts and matching wits with them. . .There is a matchless beauty about their tawny bodies striped in midnight black. There is rhythmic grace in their stealthy stride and the long curving arc of their supple bodies as they spring. I even love their snarling hiss as they bare their powerful fangs to strike. . .Nowadays, when I meet men and women who spend their lives shut up in houses or offices, whose faces are gray with the monotony of humdrum daily existence, I realize how fortunate I was in the choice of my lifework."
That choice, I learned, was made early. While other kids in her hometown of Princeton, Kentucky were engaged in usual after-school social pursuits, young Mabel always made a bee-line for the zoo to watch the animals, hour after hour. A fledgling nursing career was nipped in the bud when she bought a ticket for the A.G. Barnes Circus while vacationing in California, and by chance, ran into Mr. Barnes himself. So apparent was her enthusiasm for furry creatures---and her natural rapport with them---that Barnes invited her to join his organization on the spot. She did.
The book's photos were nothing less than spectacular. They invariably found Miss Stark in glamorous, militaristic circus attire, with blonde hair in a kind of page-boy. One shot found her posing with sixteen tigers(!) arranged on pedestals in a kind of pyramid; another depicted the lady hugging a child---along with tiger cubs on either side of the child---with the caption, "two kinds of children;" yet another had her posing with Mae West and a leopard (seems she had "graduated" from lions and leopards to her orange-and-black striped loves.)
It became clear, from text and photos, that this great circus star was utterly dedicated to her incarcerated creatures---astonishingly so, when you consider that she was raised in less enlightened times when the imprisonment of animals for entertainment was not widely questioned. She often took her tigers home(!), sometimes for walks on the Venice, Ca. beach when the circus was wintering there. She raised many from cubs, fed them punctually, fixed their teeth, scratched their heads to make them purr (yes, she said, tigers do purr), lanced their boils, and always staunchly defended those that bit and clawed her:
"I always blame myself---not the tiger," she wrote, "if something goes wrong. Maybe it is an ulcerated tooth, a sore paw, a just a grudge against the world for no good reason at all that has upset the cat. . .Then the fun starts."
The "fun" was a series of maulings so gruesome as to be scarcely believable. The worst was in a 1928 stop in Bangor, Maine, while touring with the John Robinson Company, in an encounter with cats named Sheik and Zoo. Hold your breath for Miss Stark's own description:
"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."
Insisting that she be changed into a "street dress" for her trip to the hospital (she was actually worried about scaring people with her blood-soaked circus outfit!), Miss Stark was stitched, patched, and given up for dead by doctors, yet somehow pulled through in a matter of weeks.
She later discovered that on the night of the "fun," Sheik and Zoo had somehow not been fed or watered in 24 hours. The kitties were just hungry!
"No wonder," wrote Miss Stark, shifting blame away from her big cats, "I literally had to battle for my life."
And so went the narrative of this strange, brave, somehow tender-hearted person, for whom each new disfiguring scar "also brought a full measure of happiness, for it taught me something new and interesting about my cats." Those words gave me chills, there in the Thousand Oaks Library, as did the book's final paragraph:
"Out slink the striped cats, snarling and roaring, leaping at each other or at me. It's a matchless thrill, and life without it is not worth while to me. I hope each new season until my number is up will find me shouting, 'Let them come!'"
No wonder, when the seasons were through and the tigers gone, she took it upon herself to decide that her number was up. The big cats were her Mt. Everest, and her family. Or maybe that's too melodramatic. Maybe she was just a little golden-locked Kentucky girl who never got over a love of going to the zoo.
Either way, here's one more headline for Mabel Stark, bric-a-brac decore of Philippe's walls, the greatest lady tiger tamer who ever lived. With apologies from a rude little kid who giggled at her long ago.
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.