Person : Van Amburgh, Isaac A.

Alternative Names:
Birth Year: 1808
Death Year: 1865

The American style of caged animal presentation conveys a completely different mood. Now fallen out of favor in the face of more sophisticated “civilized” treatment of animals, the American school of wild animal training began with Isaac Van Amburgh, when he climbed into the National Menagerie’s little rectangular cage with a lion, a tiger, and a leopard in 1833. There had been lions on display in the new world since the first one arrived in Boston Harbor in 1716, and several men had already dared to enter into the lion’s cage. But Van Amburgh was certainly the most famous of early American trainers to enter the lion’s den. He emphasized the incredible danger he faced and the magnificent courage it took to face the beast in the cage, especially since his predecessor may have been eaten alive trying the same thing. Dressed like a Roman gladiator, Van Amburgh would force his animals to perform tricks by cruelly beating them into submission with a crow bar; or in a semblance of combat he would jam his blooded arm into the lion’s mouth and dare it to bite. Despite his cultivated religious image of lying down with lions and lambs, he was cruel, loud, and brash. However, in the spirit of frontier America, he represented the complete dominance of man over untamed nature that the public evidently needed to be reassured by. From this kind of metaphorical demonstration of the invincibility of man in the primitive, natural world sprang the traditional American style of wild-animal act, characterized by a primitive macho trial-and-error quality. Its popularity caused a rapid growth in imitators. By 1922 there were fifty men and women presenting cat acts on many different circuses. They included such great early twentieth-century trainers as Peru’s rough and ready Terrell Jacobs, who with the help of his wife Dolly worked the largest cat act of all—in a fifty-foot cage with an advertised fifty animals—and Jack Bonavita, who lost an arm to a vicious attack by one of his twenty-seven lions (Hoh, 1990, p. 223, 225).

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