Facing the Big Cats: Clyde Beatty and His Famous Circus Act

Last month, the famed Ringling Brothers Circus closed after many decades in the business. In this multi-media age, the circus found it increasingly difficult to compete with the torrent of distractions available to the public. And there was criticism, too, of the animal acts which have always been a staple of the “greatest shows on earth.”

The greatest of all such acts was that of Clyde Beatty and his menagerie of big cats, predominately lions and tigers. For over three decades, this most unusual man entertained the circus public by entering an arena-cage of unpredictable cats and coaxing them to show their stuff on command. These cats were not de-fanged or de-clawed cats (against Beatty’s principles) rendered relatively safe; they were animals in their prime, jungle-bred, and capable of pure havoc when not expertly handled.

Clyde Beatty knew his business, and quite a business it was for him and the various circuses with which he performed. As a youngster, I well recall the fame and mystique his name engendered. Not one in a hundred youngsters today would recognize the name, yet Clyde Beatty enjoyed a national prominence which began in the early nineteen-thirties and lasted for over thirty-five years.

I just bought a copy of his book, Facing the Big Cats, published in 1965. It is my second copy: I bought my first copy the year it appeared, and I still have it. My wife asked me, “Why do you need two copies of the same book?” My answer: “Because this second copy is in pristine condition and the book is an exemplary exposition of big cat behavior by a true American icon!” I was enthralled with the adventure, the copious photographs, and the taut, incisive text of the book back in 1965 and continue to be so today. I have a shelf of books on Africa and its wildlife, and this book fits in perfectly thanks to the big cat insight contained within its pages.

In his book, Beatty, with the help of writer Edward Anthony, deftly reveals his exploits and close calls with his jungle-bred charges. Beatty chose to work only with cats born in the wild as opposed to those raised in captivity because the latter can become somewhat domesticated and docile – to a point. He is quick to emphasize the inevitable natural instincts of all cats which lurk just below the surface, and, when not quickly recognized by a trainer, can result in injury or death. Particularly notable is his knowledge of every cat he worked with as an individual personality, replete with personal idiosyncrasies. It is this deep knowledge of and involvement with his animals that kept him largely whole and alive through thirty-five years in the big cage with these overwhelmingly powerful cats.

Beatty mentions many of his animals by name: Two of his favorite lions, Sultan (see picture) and Pharaoh are described in the book. Pharaoh is described as “…my most dependable lion. The biggest and most powerful animal in the act, he performs with spirit and never makes any trouble. More than any lion I have ever trained, he has curbed the fighting instinct. He gets into very few brawls [with other animals], but is a strict disciplinarian and when one of the other lions – perhaps a newcomer to the act – makes the mistake of advancing toward him with an angry growl and bared fangs, Pharaoh takes care of the situation by sending the offender spinning with a slap of his mighty paws. He has more natural dignity than any big cat I have ever handled. He comports himself with a kind of majesty that almost seems a reminder to the other animals that he expects them to be respectful in his presence. Pharaoh is seldom challenged. Among his co-performers are some pretty tough lions, but they don’t seem to want to tangle with him.”

There were numerous close-calls and near disasters for Beatty. Performing his act in Honolulu in 1961, one of his lions, Brutus, badly clawed him. Beatty had made a mistake that night during the act, forgetting that the cage area in Honolulu was purposely erected to be several feet shorter than usual. Beatty found himself unexpectedly backing into the bars while “jousting” with Brutus using his ever-present chair as a shield. Beatty explained that a trainer must, at all times, be completely aware of each animal, the cage area, and his exact position in it. His awareness lapse of the configuration change that night led to being surprisingly backed into the cage bars by Brutus. At that instant, the animal also became surprised by his cornered trainer, then confused, and ultimately aroused at this unfamiliar situation and pressed forward and upward digging his claws into Beatty’s left shoulder. The situation quickly became very tricky and Beatty was fortunate to have extracted himself from it without sustaining even more serious injury.

Afterward, when recovered from the incident and back on the job again, Beatty visited Brutus in his cage and found “the old Brutus, my good friend.” He recalled that the big cat wanted his ear rubbed through the bars “…and as I performed this ritual his expression was as benign as that of the most harmless and docile of house cats. But Brutus is one of those friends who likes to play rough, a kind of rowdy practical joker.”

Beatty recalled reading Martin Johnson’s famous book Lion and its description of a lion prior to a kill: “Its tail was slashing and its head dropped low.” Beatty added, “Well that describes Brutus perfectly before he upraised himself and pinned me against the bars. And that is why it had flashed across my mind that this was no longer the Brutus I knew, that this was a Brutus bent on killing.”

Beatty concludes, “More than once I have confused people by referring to a lion or a tiger as a friend. Without having any illusions about their trouble-making potential, a trainer develops an affection for his animals. It is possible to love them without fully trusting them. There are little ways in which these big, ferocious beasts convey that they have confidence in you and trust you – to a point.” It took great courage and refined experience to go into a cage with such powerful and ultimately unpredictable cats night after night. Anything could and usually did happen over a period of time. Beatty’s animals had unique personalities and, not infrequently, a full-bore, snarling fight erupted during the act between individuals who did not like one another. At that point, all hell could and often did break loose in the cage. Beatty was well aware of signs to watch for every moment he was in the cage. A lesser man would never have survived relatively intact for over thirty-five years of performing.

Here is a page from Facing the Big Cats: Note Beatty’s comment, below!

As a young man, I developed a deep interest in the big cats and the exploits of those who dealt with them. The excellent book Hunter by J.A. Hunter kick-started my interest back in the early nineteen-sixties. Born Free, the true story of Elsa the lioness further nurtured that interest along with the excellent movie Out of Africa. Both the book by J.A. Hunter, who was one of the last and greatest white-hunter/game-wardens of old Africa, and Beatty’s book, Facing the Big Cats, serve as the practical man’s guide to animal behavior. Reading these accounts, one comes away not with theoretical animal psychology, but rather adventure and knowledge rooted in years of experience and direct observation. And fascinating reading it all is!

Postscript: Thankfully today, respect for animals and their treatment has grown by leaps and bounds from attitudes prevalent within my early lifetime. I am certain that the proper treatment and preservation of big cats and other wildlife would be paramount in the minds of both J.A. Hunter and Clyde Beatty were they alive today to witness the dim prospects of these animals and their environments, victims of our modern, human-oriented world. It is undeniable that, while both men earned their livings long ago on the backs of some of nature’s most marvelous creatures, they nevertheless had great respect for the animals they dealt with. Times have changed. Let us hope that human society will properly adapt and protect and preserve these magnificent creatures, no matter what the cost and effort.

Click on the link below to read my earlier post titled: J. A. Hunter: The Adventures of a Game Warden in an Africa Which Is No More


10 thoughts on “Facing the Big Cats: Clyde Beatty and His Famous Circus Act

  1. in late 1940’s when i was 6 or 7 my big brother took me to Lincoln Nebraska to see a “circus” that had big cats but no clowns or trapeze acts. This was in a big tent on the state fair grounds — I have tried to come up with the name of the lion tamer. It appears it must have been clyde Beatty, but i am 74 and keep thinking it was a different name. It was a totally different kind of circus and totally spellbinding. My brother was home from the navy and did a lot of things with me. If anyone knows of another name (I still think it started with an E) please send me your thoughts. everything i find on Beatty rings true, but there were NO other acts of any kind. No clowns, just the big cats. I love animals and am glad to see things changing in the world of abuse and neglect, it will never happen fast enough however.

    • You most likely saw “The Clyde Beatty Circus” which toured the western U.S. to big crowds, especially in 1946/47. This was a cats-only show which traveled via rail and featured a “big-top” tent venue. It is interesting to note other remarks (like yours) on Beatty’s act which attest to the highly-charged impact of the performances they witnessed. Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. Thanks for such a cool Post.
    I saw the Clyde Beatty Circus in 1958, In Brunswick Georgia. His “Fighting Act” was electrifying and terrifying. Alone in the cage with a dozen or more Lions and Tigers, he controlled the beasts with his voice, a small chair, a bullwhip, and a revolver loaded with blanks.
    As a showman he was unsurpassed. As he was getting three tigers to sit and then roll over in unison, a big black-maned Lion sneaked up behind him and screams and cries of “Look out, Clyde!” came from hundreds of spectators in the Big Top.
    Turning just in the nick of time, Beatty spun about, stopped the charge with a chair in the the lion’s path, and staggered back a step or two, dropping his whip to the sawdust. He drew the Colt and fired it point blank in the roaring lion’s face. The Lion turned around, hopped back onto its pedestal, then Clyde turned back to his tigers.
    The drama was not all sham, and the trainer was mauled by his cats more than once in his long career. I was just glad that I didn’t have to see it.
    I no longer approve of the exploitation of wild animals, but I will never forget Clyde Beatty or the smell of fear in the tent that night.

    • Thanks for the great comment, John! You captured the essence and the drama of Clyde Beatty and his “act” very well with your words. Lucky you were to have seen him perform live in the circus; unless he happened to be in the Ringling Bros. circus around 1946 (when I was six and saw the show at Soldier’s Field in Chicago), I never had the pleasure. Like you, I am, today, totally against any exploitation of animals, but that was a different time when different attitudes prevailed. Reading Beatty’s book, the picture emerges of a man who truly knew and respected his animals despite the undeniable exploitation. Yes, it was an “act” with rehearsed, trained cats, but the real unpredictability and wildness of these jungle-born cats could not be denied. Beatty was one-of-a-kind who survived so long by being both a consumate showman and knowing his animals as individuals. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

  3. Great blog post! I love reading these! As you spoke of the big cats, especially the part where you describe the incident where Clyde’s shoulder was injured, I can’t help but think of my own house cats. They are usually gentle and live in peace with us, but in a situation where they might feel confused and backed into a corner they could react just as Brutus did. I imagine Clyde Beatty was unique and did seem to know his cats. How fortunate you were to have been able to see his performances! Times certainly have changed. I hope as you do that we find a way to keep these magnificent animals from disappearing.

    • It is interesting that nature saw fit to provide us with “miniature big cats” that can live with us in our homes. As you indicate, though, the “minis” still exhibit the instincts of their larger cousins in so many ways. Thanks for commenting, Mary!

  4. Very interesting. I attended the Ringling Bros circus in the mid-60s in SF. I don’t recall who was in the big cat ring, but possibly Beatty. I’m glad the circuses are closing one by one so these magnificent animals (elephants are my favorite) are no longer exploited for human entertainment.

    • I agree with your sentiments. The thought of such large animals (elephants) and active animals (big cats) being confined in close quarters and enduring so much road travel truly depresses me. The prospect for survival in their (shrinking) wilderness is extremely depressing as well. If humans cannot muster the necessary initiative to protect and save such wondrous creatures, perhaps we deserve no better fate than they.

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