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


J. A. Hunter: The Adventures of a Game Warden in an Africa Which Is No More

Many a sun has risen and set since that day in the nineteen-fifties when I encountered the adventurous life of John A. Hunter in the book stacks of the San Mateo public library. Somehow – and I do not remember quite how – I had become enamored of the African bush and its wildlife while in high school, and I was exploring the downtown library stacks for some good books on the subject.


Hunter is the autobiography of one of Africa’s last and greatest professional “white hunters,” as they were called. True to the genre, J.A. Hunter, a Scotsman, came to Africa from Europe in 1908 seeking a life of excitement and purpose as did so many others. Published in 1952, the pages of this little book fairly brim with excitement and adventure as the author recalls one memorable incident after another in his long career as guide and game warden.

Among the many books on my library shelves – books on all manner of topics – this little volume occupies an honored spot on my den shelves. I bought this copy new, in a hole-in-the-wall bookstore in nearby Palo Alto just a few years after I had first discovered the book in our downtown library. Like the Africa so vividly described between the book’s covers, that little bookstore disappeared long ago as has the former quaintness of the rustic shopping center just kitty-corner from the Stanford University campus. So much has changed over the years since I purchased this book.

So, this little book holds many memories for me, actual and symbolic. I was captivated by J.A. Hunter’s exciting adventures in the bush back then and still am today. I could discern, even as a teenager, that this fellow was writing an honest account of life in the African bush as a professional hunter. His personality and integrity are reflected in his words; embellishment does not tarnish his depictions.


 J. A. Hunter: Last of a breed, and one of the best

No Place for Professional Hunters in Today’s Africa

I am extremely sensitive to the plight of Africa’s wildlife, today, convinced that we are on the threshold of destroying, forever, some of nature’s most majestic creatures. The times are dramatically changed from the days when wild animals roamed free and plentiful. Accordingly, I am against any big game hunting in Africa except that done with a camera. Much of J.A. Hunter’s professional hunting was done as a game control warden near Nairobi in the early days, a time when thinning the vast herds of wildlife was considered necessary both for the human residents of the region and the animals, themselves. Often, he was called upon to dispatch a rogue elephant or rhino (such as the one pictured on the book’s cover) which was marauding the native villages. There were lions, too, which had tasted human flesh and had to be dealt with – the storied “man-eaters.” Hunter later witnessed the rapidly changing outlook for Africa’s wildlife which threatened the very animals he had, long ago, learned to respect. He no doubt was appalled by the prospects that loomed for Africa’s irreplaceable wildlife. In the last years of his long career, he was employed as a safari “safety,” the only gun in the entourage of strictly photographic “shooters.”

Captain A.T.A. Ritchie who was the Game Warden of Kenya from 1923 to 1949 writes in the book’s Introductory Note about Hunter’s unique qualifications as a hunter. As to why J.A. was always given the tough, dangerous assignments, he stated it is because, “he has been fitted for it by his great qualities: unrivaled experience and knowledge of animal behavior, surpassing skill and speed in handling firearms, and most importantly perhaps an equable temperament and iron nerve, a formidable combination.” He goes on to say, “It is not for blood lust that has made him volunteer when dangerous game have had to be killed, for he has never enjoyed the taking of life; it is the thrill of the hunt and the danger of it that he revels in, and the practice of skill that alone maintains the thin line which separated superman from suicide.” I love that last sentence: “Thin line,” indeed, and ever-present as suggested by the accounts related in the book.

As interesting as Hunter’s adventures and close-calls with the “big five” of Africa’s wildlife are his associations with various hunting clients in the early days. One that stands out was an English girl named Fay. Hunter relates, “Some clients may be headaches but they are also a pleasure to be with. I remember a young English girl called Fay, barely out of her teens, whose greatest pleasure was to be on safari. Much snow has fallen on [Mount] Kilimanjaro since I took this girl hunting, but I can picture her before me now, dressed in semi-cowboy fashion, a silk bandana loosely tied around her dark hair, ends tucked into a shirt blouse, while a fancy-headed pigskin belt was wound around her slim waist to hold her cartridges. Fay was a true open-air girl: a fine fisherman, an excellent shot and a splendid rider. Her horses and dogs adored her. Vim and dash surrounded her like light around a lamp. No matter what came up, Fay was game for it….. Fay had unlimited energy and could hunt all day and play all night”

“Poor gay little Fay. When all other thrills failed to satisfy her she took to drugs. What finally happened to her, I have no idea. She was a girl of free morals, no doubt, but she was an excellent shot and a good companion. You can’t expect to find everything in a woman.”

 The Most Dangerous of the African Big-Five?

Hunter ranks the Leopard at the top of the list followed by the lion, the buffalo, the rhino, and finally, the elephant. The reader quickly appreciates the in-depth knowledge of animal behavior that J.A. Hunter had acquired during his years dealing with all five of these animals. For instance, he relates that the leopard is more cunning than the lion. A lion hiding in tall grass will bolt with a few small pebbles thrown in his general direction. A leopard will remain motionless until he is discovered at close quarters and forced to attack. Leopards will kill (goats and smaller cattle) for the sake of killing whereas a lion only hunts for what he will eat.

In chapter 16, he describes the time he and four moran (Masai warriors) were on the trail of a rogue leopard who had taken refuge in a shallow, rocky cave. This animal had caused much trouble for the local Masai. As two of the moran stood by with spears at the ready, the other two probed the cave’s entrance with a long sapling pole. “Suddenly a deep, coarse growl came from the cave, reverberating off the rocky sides. Immediately the leopard burst out like a bullet from a gun. As the leopard charged us he continued to utter a series of grunts, made by his breath’s intake and output. He knocked down the two Masai with the pole and then leaped for one of the armed moran. The man met the charge with a spear thrust. He missed. In an instant the leopard was on top of his shield, mauling him about the face with his forepaws and biting him in the shoulder. The man fell to the ground with the animal still clinging to him. The other moran stabbed at the leopard, his spear passing so close to me that the razor-like head cut my trousers. Instantly the cat turned on him and seized the man by the arm. Down he went, with the leopard ripping him open with both forepaws and hind legs, his teeth still buried in the man’s arm. All this took but seconds, far less than it takes to tell it. I pushed my rifle muzzle against the thick neck of the leopard and fired, blowing a hole through the mass of snarling savagery. So ended the worst cattle killer in that area. I was astonished at the amount of damage this leopard had been able to inflict on the Masai in a matter of moments [they both survived].”


The famed book reviewer of the time, Clifton Fadiman, wrote, “It [the book] takes its place as a classic in the field of animal behavior and psychology. It has the proportions of a prime human document and a record of a way of life that to most of us will seem strange to the point of near-impossibility.” He goes on to say, “I should like to confess that this is the kind of book – all reviewers have their blind spots – I would ordinarily bypass. I started it with skepticism. I finished it, quite lost to everything else, in one absorbed sitting.”

I have found via the internet that other people have discovered J.A. Hunter’s story, as well. The same positive reaction to it is inevitably expressed.

This book provides the reader with factual “escapism” at its best. I have long maintained that fact is stranger than fiction…and more interesting. Closing Hunter after a “read,” I find myself thinking, “What a life the man led! Can such adventure be found in today’s world?” I inevitably conclude that, perhaps it can, but not adventure with the same fine texture that old Africa could offer men like Hunter. And, finally, one cannot help but conclude that they just do not make many men like J.A. Hunter these days.