CBR14Bingo: Snakes (there are snakes in this book)
Continuing my dive into circus animal trainer memoirs with this self-published look into working the big cat act at Carson & Barnes in 1977-1978. This is a very plainly written, minimally edited book that is basically a day by day journal of his time on the show and a few pages about him working at a roadside zoo type attraction in Florida afterwards. It was interesting in terms of the facts and his honesty about the mistreatment of the animals on this circus. I don’t necessarily want to get dragged into the existential debate of if animals belong in the circus, as it’s a flashpoint issue, but in this one case in 1977 I would say the animals on this particular show were not being treated well. Especially after the last two books I read, where the animals were being very well cared for at Ringling by the vet and the trainers, it was jarring to come to this book and see how miserable an experience these animals were having.
This season seemed to be a rough one for the whole circus as well, as the show Younger describes is constantly on the verge of falling apart. All of the trucks and cages are old and won out, the trucks keep breaking down and crashing, the animals are kept trapped in flimsy cages that are too small, people quit constantly and have drinking problems — some of this, like the people quitting constantly, seems to be a normal part of running a traveling show staffed by itinerant guys who get picked up along the way, but the cumulative effect of the book is of a show on the brink of collapse. As this was more of a menagerie and animal based show, the majority of the big cats spent their whole lives in the cages and never came out, and he keeps mentioning how two tigers were kept in a way too small cage and how that bothered him. To his credit, Younger appeared to care about doing the best he could in terms of keeping the animals fed and watered, but he is mainly there to fulfill his lifelong dream of being an animal trainer. In comparison with the more philosophical and careful European training described in Tiger, Tiger, this is just someone being handed some cats that already trained, and he’s shown how to make them do the tricks. By the end of the book, he gets bored with doing the same show all the time and not having the chance to do any training on his own. This is where he got a bit delusional, because I didn’t get how he thought he could make his own act having never had any real schooling on how to be an animal trainer. When he goes to Florida, he gets into the ring with a lion and tries to train it, but it goes badly because as far as I could tell, he didn’t have any real plan or long-term idea of what to do. After that the book just ends after short descriptions of his time as an elephant groom for three months at another show and a 24-hour man at Carson & Barnes some years later.
I think unless you are really really interested in the circus, there are a lot of other better circus books to read. Also, all the descriptions of animals being beaten and held in cruel conditions are very depressing, especially the extremely grim section of Okie training the elephants. I like the spirit of someone self-publishing a memoir and the history he captures here, so I appreciated this book, but I wouldn’t re-read it or really recommend it because the lack of copy-editing made it tough going sometimes.
Warnings for: a lot of animal abuse, animals being beaten, a hyena being shot and killed, a man being clawed by a tiger and a lion, a boy being electrocuted, circus accidents.