Mabel Stark

Mabel Stark, whose real name was Mary Haynie (December 9, 1889 - April 20 1968) was the world's premier tiger trainer of the 1920s and she was referred to as the world's first woman tiger trainer/tamer.


Stark was born near Princeton, Kentucky. She was one of seven children born to Lela and Hardy Haynie. Stark's parents were farmers and they died within two years of each other, so that by the age of 17, Stark and her siblings were orphaned. She spent a short period of time with her aunt in Princeton. She then traveled to Louisville and became a nurse at St. Mary's Hospital. Soon after, she left Louisville and her history becomes difficult to trace. Circus friends contend that she worked in carnivals as a "dancer" of some type. Like many circus performers, Stark didn't hesitate to enrich the truth to create an interesting story. She even once told an interviewer that she was born to a wealthy Canadian. She ended up in 1911 with the Al G. Barnes Circus based in Culver City, California where she met animal trainer Al Sands. She worked for a brief time there as a "high school" rider (horseback rider), but fervently wanted to work with the big cats. She began work with Louis Roth, a famous "cat man" who she would later marry. (Stark was married 4 or 5 times) Soon, she became a tiger trainer in the ring. At first, they had her work a "balloon act" which had her "riding" a lion on a platform and then pressing a pedal to release fireworks at some point in the act. But by 1916, she was presenting the show's major tiger act.

She adopted a mangy, sickly tiger cub named Rajah and raised him to perform a famous wrestling act with her. She accomplished this by romping and playing with the cub at the beach and actually keeping him as a pet in her apartment. According to Stark's autobiography, "Rajah would run straight toward me. Up he went on his hind legs, his forefeet around my neck. We turned around once or twice, I threw him to the ground, and we rolled three or four times. I opened his mouth and put my face inside, then jumped to my feet."

She was approached by, and joined the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1922, where she performed in Madison Square Garden with snarling tigers and a black panther. By the end of that season, of the six wild animal acts featured with the circus, Mabel Stark's was clearly the greatest success. In 1923, she starred in the Ringling center ring, but two years later in 1925, the circus banned all wild animal acts. After a sojourn to Europe where she performed in a circus, she came back to the U.S. in 1928 and began work with the John Robinson Show. In Bangor, Maine she lost her footing in a muddy arena and was seriously mauled by her tigers. She would suffer a wound that almost severed her leg, face lacerations, a hole in her shoulder, a torn deltoid muscle and a host of other injuries. She was rescued by fellow trainer, Terrell Jacobs, and returned to the ring in a matter of weeks, swathed in bandages and walking with a cane. She suffered numerous maulings and serious injury over her nearly 60 years of working with tigers. At one point in her career, she would face 18 big cats in the ring.

She performed with the Sells-Floto Circus in 1929 and then rejoined Barnes, after it had been sold to Ringling, in 1930 and stayed there until it folded in 1935. She toured with some small circuses and lived in Japan where she performed her circus act in the 1950s. She returned to California and finished her career at the Jungle Compound (later called Jungleland) at Thousand Oaks.

Stark appeared occasionally on television in the 1960s. For example, she did a stint as one of the guests with an unusual occupation on What's My Line?, the popular Sunday Night CBS-TV program.

In 1968 Jungleland was sold to a new owner who disliked Stark and fired her. Soon after she left, one of her tigers escaped and was shot. Stark was angry and hurt about the animal's destruction and felt that she could have safely secured the tiger if the owners had asked for her assistance. Three months later, she killed herself by an overdose of barbiturates. In the last pages of her autobiography, Hold That Tiger, Stark writes: "The chute door opens as I crack my whip and shout, 'Let them come,' Out slink the striped cats, snarling and roaring, leaping at each other or at me. It's a matchless thrill, and life without it is not worth while to me."

She died on April 20 1968.


As of February 26 2007, there are rumors of a film based on her life in the developmental stages, reportedly directed and/or produced by Sam Mendes and starring Kate Winslet. The filming rights were purchased by his production company, Neal Street Productions, and based upon a fictionalized account of Stark's life by author Robert Hough, entitled The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. The screenplay is rumored to be adapted by Italian screenwriter Francesca Marciano. Production is expected to begin sometime in 2008.


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