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

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/j-a-hunter-the-adventures-of-a-game-warden-in-an-africa-which-is-no-more/

“Out of Africa” / “The End of the Game”

There are few things that sadden me more than the inevitable fate of Africa’s wildlife at the hands of “civilization.” My message, here, touches on that theme while offering a broad-brush picture of Africa, past and present.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” opens the richly written and highly acclaimed memoir, Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen). In a curious chain of circumstances, my life-long fascination with Africa and its wildlife has recently been rekindled by her story and by other recent events. Many will recall the magnificent 1985 film, Out of Africa, which starred a young Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, directed by Sidney Pollack. The story’s setting recounts the sweeping panorama that was East Africa and Kenya in the early days of its capitol, Nairobi.

It was in Nairobi that many Brits and other Europeans opened up new colonial frontiers for the British Empire. People came for a multitude of reasons: Land grants from the government, pure adventure, and the opportunity to start a new life in a new place – whatever the root motivation. And those who came and risked the hardships of raw Africa in the early twentieth century were either fools or hardy adventurers, determined and pre-destined to succeed, there.

One of those who could and did meet Africa’s challenge was the Scotsman, John Alexander Hunter, who quickly became the most celebrated “white hunter” and later game warden in Africa’s history. Hunter arrived in Nairobi from Scotland in 1908 seeking adventure and a livelihood. Indeed, there was a need for “animal control” during the early days when native Africans eked out an existence among the then-teeming wildlife that surrounded them. Men like Hunter dealt with marauding elephants and rhinos that destroyed crops of the Masai and the Kikuyu farmers. And there were the occasional man-eaters, lions which had tasted human flesh and found the taking too easy. In the early days of plentiful game, white hunters paid their bills by guiding hunting safaris of the rich and privileged. Few people had the foresight in the 1920’s and 30’s to envision the dire wildlife situation which exists today in Africa. J.A. Hunter saw it coming as he later turned to work as a game warden and “gun safety” for strictly photographic safaris. It was J.A. Hunter’s iconic little book, Hunter, that first triggered my personal African odyssey more than fifty years ago. For that story as related on my earlier blog post about J.A. Hunter, click on the following link:

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/j-a-hunter-the-adventures-of-a-game-warden-in-an-africa-which-is-no-more/

One of Nairobi’s early settlers not destined to make East Africa their permanent home was Karen Blixen who published Out of Africa in 1937, six years after returning to her native Denmark. Her memoir of the years 1913 to 1931 spent on her coffee farm high near the foot of the Ngong Hills, a dozen or so miles from Nairobi, creates a brilliant collage of Africa, Kenya’s bountiful wildlife, and the inscrutable native Africans who served her and her homestead. She related well to the Kikuyu and Somali Africans who worked her farm and household, even forming close bonds with several of those who served inside her home. Nonetheless, she appreciated her ultimate limits in that regard as she noted, “On our safaris and on the farm, my acquaintance with the Natives developed into a settled and personal relationship. We were good friends. I reconciled myself to the fact that while I should never quite know or understand them, they knew me through and through, and were conscious of the decisions I was going to take, before I was certain about them, myself.”

Blixen’s eloquent depictions in the book serve not only as a personal memoir of a bigger-than-life true story, but as a brilliant tapestry of early colonial East Africa, the traditions of safari and Africa’s teeming wildlife, and the challenging surroundings which engulfed the author. Earnest Hemingway, no stranger to literary honors, thought so highly of Out of Africa and its merits that he proposed Blixen as a worthy contender for a Nobel Prize in literature.

There is another prophetic book about Africa which, despite my early naivete concerning the subject, I was prescient enough to purchase in 1965, the year of its initial publication. Its title: The End of the Game, by Peter Beard. It has become something of a cult title, yet despite the author’s unorthodox style, the book was prophetic about the end of “the game” in Africa. While expressing grave pessimism over the fate of Africa’s game animals, the book’s larger thrust is a poke at “the game” as played in Nairobi and elsewhere by the early, privileged white “invaders” from colonial Britain and Europe as they went about executing new “land grants” and confiscating land from the resident natives to build their empires. Does that sound familiar to students of the American West and its history? The pages of this book contain many glimpses of the early settlers in and around Kenya including Baroness (Karen) Blixen and her lover and platonic ideal, the storied, Oxford educated white hunter, Denys Finch Hatton. Blixen and Finch Hatton came from aristocratic, wealthy backgrounds in Denmark and England, respectively. Like so many others of privilege who comprised the early colonial settlements in Kenya, they seemed by background unfit and unprepared to deal, long-term, with the demands of African existence. Blixen and her Danish nobleman husband at the time, Bror Blixen, made the ill-informed decision to plant coffee at their farm, ignoring the fact that the land was too elevated for favorable results. That fact and a later, devastating fire that destroyed the farm’s coffee processing barn, doomed Karen Blixen’s success in Africa.

On the other hand, men like J.A. Hunter and H.K. Binks arrived in Africa already equipped with a steely inner-core and flexible attitudes, tempered by the experiences of a well-grounded, challenging early life at “home.”

H.K. “Pop” Binks came from Yorkshire and arrived in Nairobi in 1900, making him one of the town’s earliest white settlers. He lived very modestly in Nairobi with his wife “Binkie” until death claimed him in 1971. During his lifetime in Nairobi, Binks plied numerous trades, including local photographer, astronomer, and author. He exhibited the attitudes and adaptability that life in Africa demanded. I have read first-hand accounts concerning the initiative and resilience of Mr. Binks, and at least one educated voice who knew him personally claimed him to be “the most interesting person I ever knew.” In his book, African Rainbow, Binks stated: “I have been lonelier in the crowded streets of a city than in the great open spaces of Africa, with all wild things for companions.”

In 1965, I received a personal note from Mr. Binks in response to a letter I wrote to him at his Nairobi address. I had asked if he had any reminiscences of old Nairobi he could share with me – strictly because of my interest in East Africa and early settlers like him. He very kindly answered my “out of the blue” letter but explained he was already involved with a “home” publisher (perhaps his book, African Rainbow) and could not comply. He wished me luck in my search.

Needless to say, I was pleased and grateful that he cared enough to reply to me. I have kept that folded little note from Binks tucked in one of my J.A. Hunter books for over fifty years, now – a prized connection to the East Africa that once was.

Over time, Africa methodically weeded out its unfit would-be residents just as it has always done within its animal populations. Changing conditions hastened the demise of the colonials who enjoyed a privileged existence in old Africa. In a similar vein, evolving world and local conditions appear also to foretell the virtual demise of Africa’s crown jewel, its diverse animal populations, roaming free and wild.

Today, population pressure from within Africa threatens its wildlife like never before. Whereas J.A. Hunter was occasionally called upon to kill a marauding elephant or rhino intent on invading a local native village, today the local human populations expand inexorably outward occupying and fencing vast stretches of what were once grazing lands where animals roamed free. And today we must deal with organized poachers who continue to cull the finest wildlife specimens from the remaining small numbers still “protected” in game preserves.

Saving Africa’s wildlife can succeed only with world-wide support. Much lip service is paid, but a comprehensive, long-range plan and adequate moneys appear wanting.

The problems involved in protecting Africa’s wildlife are very challenging, yet, in the face of halting progress to date, it seems to me that man is a failed species, himself, if he cannot prevent the decimation of Africa’s (and nature’s) crowning glory. I venture to say, in that case, man will ultimately prove incapable of saving himself from himself. If so, perhaps we deserve no better fate as a species.