At the circus: Performing animals (1904)

Beasts as entertainers

Tricks of performing animals

by William G Fitzgerald

There probably is more competition in the entertainment world than in any other profession. This is not to be wondered at because the public is fickle, and soon tires of a show that it has seen more than once; the prices are high, and a man who invents a popular show makes a fortune. This particularly is the case with animal entertainers.

The whole subject is well-illustrated in the case of Herr Julius Seeth, whose history reads more like an effort of fiction than a matter of ordinary vaudeville fact.

1900-performing geese-roostersThe story begins in the wild and remote, shifting Capital of the Emperor Menelik of Abyssinia (“Lion of Judah and Ruler of All the Ethiopias”). This savage ruler has a Swiss Prime Minister named Ilg, and this man, chancing to spend his holiday in Zurich one year, saw Herr Seeth giving a somewhat wretched show with a couple of underfed lions. On his return to his Imperial Master, Ilg mentioned the fact to the Emperor, who received it with incredulity. “What!” said Menelik. “A white man going right into the cage with lions? Why, my people would run miles merely at the sound of their roar.”

The two had further conversation on the matter, and then it was arranged that if Herr Seeth could be induced to come to Addisabeba, the Emperor would catch for him, in special shallow pits, thirty lions. Ilg communicated with Seeth through a consul, and that gigantic worthy, like the enterprising man that he was, left all things and made for Zeila on the Red Sea, there to await the permit without which no white man can enter Ethiopia.

Arriving at the capital, Seeth found the thirty lions; but these had been kept in a somewhat startling manner. As a matter of fact, they had been chained up loosely, so to speak, in the Imperial Gardens, and had devoured a number of incautious and mischievous small boys.

The lions were soon tamed by Herr Seeth, who greatly entertained the Emperor, and when he was about to leave the capital Menelik actually presented the whole thirty monsters to the fortunate Hamburger. Seeth showed the writer an interesting set of snapshots taken on the road to the coast, showing how the lions were carried in pairs in crates or panniers on the backs of camels, which objected as powerfully as any self-respecting camel might be expected to do.

The result of this adventure was that Seeth “opened,” as the vaudeville people say, at the London Hippodrome with a salary of three thousand dollars a week.

The question of training the whole animal kingdom from the elephant to the flea (and this range is both practical and accurate) is an enormous one. It may broadly divided into two parts: 1. The case where real training is necessary, together with much ingenuity and infinite patience; 2. The case where no training at all is necessary, but merely the taking advantage of certain peculiarities of the animal’s nature and, so to speak, harnessing these for the amusement of the public throughout the world.

1899-performing sea lions and sealsThe elephant requires training; so does the horse and the cat (the cat is a terror to train!), and the utmost patience is required to teach dogs the hosts of wonderful tricks that we see them perform.

On the other hand, one fine day an Australian man, playing with a full-sized kangaroo, received a box on the ear from the upright forefeet of the animal that sent him spinning. He rose, possibly sadder, but certainly infinitely wiser. So wise was he, in fact, that he made a fortune simply by putting a pair of boxing gloves on the forefeet of the kangaroo and starting a boxing bout with that singular animal. Of course, as is always the case, the “boxing kangaroo” could not be patented, and troops of rivals came along — not, however, until the originator had made a fortune.

A somewhat similar case is that of the performing seals. Anyone who has seen these animals fed in a zoological garden must have remarked the amazing accuracy with which they catch herrings and other fish that are thrown to them from long distances.

He was an ingenious and observant man, and well-deserved his success, who concieved the notion of making a set of seals play aerial foot-ball with their heads, keeping the ball in the air for five minutes at a time, and catching and knocking it up with rare judgment and delicacy.

The same holds good of the seal who throws burning brands and catches them in its mouth; while another seal has a couple of cymbals fastened to its flappers, or fins, and so becomes a useful member of an “orchestra,” without any training at all.

A great deal has been said and written about the intelligence of elephants — their susceptibility to kindness and so forth. All this is well; but any elephant trainer will tell you that these huge beasts are unreliable and treacherous. The writer knew a trainer named George Lockhart, who took three or four elephants all over the world with him, playing in the variety theaters from London to St Petersburg, and from Berlin to New York. One of them, the smallest of the troupe, acted as clown elephant; but comedy was turned into tragedy when one day this “little” fellow crushed the life out of his really fond and considerate master.

Another performing elephant, thoroughly well-fed and treated, not long ago broke out of the Crystal Palace near London and walked for miles at right-angles through the walls and gardens of suburban residences, picking up summer houses and kiosks which he found on the way and considerately throwing them at the houses to which they belonged. This uncertain beast was found two or three days later fast asleep in a sand-pit quite exhausted from his exertions – which, by the way, cost his owner many thousands of dollars.

The vaudeville man who takes elephants about with him usually gets pretty high pay. This is only natural, because all his animals cost far more than dogs or cats or cockatoos — a young and trainable elephant purchased from Cross of Liverpool or Hagenbeck of Hamburg may cost anything from one to five thousand dollars. Then, the beasts have to be stabled in a town, and these stables have to be pretty large. Moreover, these temporary lodgers require a place all to themselves, since no horses or other animals can be trusted with them. Then comes the question of their daily food, not to mention the shoring up of the stage to receive their enormous weight.


Slideshow: Vintage circus posters

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