“Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer”
Mistress of the Tigers
Because she was so talented at training big cats, Mabel Stark was known as Mistress of the Tigers, so adept was she at training the big cats. Mabel was born into a poor family in 1889 but she found her way out of poverty by learning to tame tigers. By the 1920s, she was famous in her field and traveled all over this country with the circus. I am fairly sure that she was unknown to most of us but that all will change with director Leslie Zemeckis’ “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer” in which we are taken into Mabel’s world. That world included several marriages, fame, and multiple maulings by the tigers that she card so much for. In fact, Mabel has a love for animals that she suffered broken arms and legs broken, part of a deltoid muscle torn out of her right shoulder; she has a plate in her head, she had no elbow in her right arm and no flesh on her leg. She often stated that her only wish was “to be killed by my animals.”
Zameckis came across Mabel’s story while doing research in burlesque and learned that Mabel worked briefly in a “cootch” show before going on to train tigers. She was an independent woman who took up training the tigers after being told, “no woman could train tigers” and she fell in love with the animals and absolutely devoted her life to tigers. Mabel’s story is one of love and bravery with love being the stronger of the two. Even with having been mauled several times, she never blamed the cats—– it was always the trainer’s [her] fault.
Mabel found a place for herself with the circus at a time when woman had little influence. The circus was very hard work but she managed to find not just acceptance but love as well working there. The circus was a different world and she was well established there. She became the person that studios went to when they needed a double for films. She doubled for Mae West and others. What is important is that she forged her way and did what she did completely on her own terms.
She didn’t do it for fame and she worked with tigers because she was passionate and had found purpose. And when that was taken away . Zameckis wants us to see how much Mabel loved these animals. We also see the value of the circus as entertainment and education.
Mabel was a complicated, dedicated, and often tragic woman with humor and heart. She had had to deal with childhood abuse, a bad marriage, and she had to escape literally escaped a Kentucky asylum after commitment by her husband. In 1911, she found tigers at the Barnes Circus quarters and her life changed. She then made her way into male-commanded wild animal training, and became the star woman tiger trainer of her industry even before women were allowed the vote.
Mabel entertained millions of people with her death defying acts inside the cages of wild animals and we really see that the real story here is her love for the animals. Tigers were her career for 57 years and she handled 22 tigers at one time. When American circuses stopped having big cat acts in the 1940s, Mabel went on tour to Europe and Japan before she returned home and worked at Jungleland a wild animal theme park in California and she performed daily there into her 70s.
I was totally intrigued from the beginning to the end by both Mabel, the person and her passion and devotion for her tigers.