First female tiger trainer took her own life about a year after she was prevented from handling tigers

Mabel Stark, a former Kentucky nurse became the world's first female tiger trainer. She spent almost 3 decades as a circus performer working with tigers and another 30 years working at Jungleland, an animal theme park in California where she raised cubs to be performers. All of her career took place in America.

Mabel Stark with a leopard cub
Mabel Stark with a leopard cub. Image: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. (Library of Congress)

On April 20, 1968, Stark took own life at the age of 79. It was about a year or so after the Jungleland general manager dismissed her because the park's insurance provider decided that they could no longer cover her.

At that moment, Mabel Stark told a cage hand at the park: ""If ever I can't have my tigers, it's sayonara, my friend."

It seems that she meant it and decided to check out.

She was born in Princeton, USA on December 10, 1889. Her real name was Mary Haynie. She was one of seven children and was raised on a farm. Her parents died when she was young.

She briefly lived with her aunt and travelled to Louisville where she became a nurse at St Mary's Hospital. She appears to have disliked nursing and was unhappy.

In 1911 she was walking around Venice, California when she was drawn to the Al G Barnes Circus. It appears it was the sound of the animals and perhaps the tigers that drew her in.

She walked upon a cage containing a Bengal tiger named King and from that point on she had a passion to be around tigers.

Circus manager Al Sands hired her as a horseback rider and from there she progressed to become the circus' wild animal trainer.

Within two years thereafter she became one of the world's top big cat trainers working with a dozen or more tigers. She was never happier than working with tigers it seems. She was taking great risks but appears to have accepted them willingly.

She treated her tigers kindly. It was one of those old-fashioned tiger performances where the tiger trainer gets the tigers to jump through fiery loops and walk on wires et cetera.

Though days are well and truly gone and tigers in zoos are now frowned upon. There are great animal welfare issues surrounding captive tigers being hawked around the country in cages to perform to entertain people. Back in the day, people didn't think like that.

She was nicknamed "Tiger Girl" and "Crazy Mabel". As mentioned, she spent a total of 60 years in the business until she was sacked and thereafter ended her life.

She had one very bad incident which almost killed her, it seems. In 1928 she nearly lost her life in a performance at Bangor, Maine.

There were 6,000 customers in attendance, and she entered the cage without realising that the tigers had not been fed for 24-hours. She slipped and was attacked by two tigers, Sheikh and Zoo.

They attacked her aggressively and she suffered multiple injuries. Both legs were badly bitten. The deltoid muscle on a shoulder was ripped away. One of her breasts was ripped away and her scalp was nearly torn off. She had 700 stitches. She never blamed the tigers.

She must have love them dearly.


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