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ANIMALS

Scrapper, Who Died of a Broken Heart

October 27, 1985|VICKI HEARNE

A man I knew only as Tiny, a lion and buffalo trainer, told me about a lion named Scrapper. It seems that at one point Tiny was in Bakersfield, with a carnival, doing an act that involved four lions. He had also a fifth, Scrapper, but he didn't know Scrapper very well, hadn't even had him out of his cage. The name, of course, suggested that this wasn't a lion who was going to make history by his gentle and forbearing nature.

Then one of Tiny's other four lions died unexpectedly. Tiny tried to get the carnival manager to accept a diminished version of the act, but the manager was stern: "You contracted for four lions, you give us four lions."

Tiny was, not to put too fine a point on it, scared of Scrapper. But animal trainers can't always indulge such luxuries as being afraid of lions. So he opened Scrapper's cage.

With the result that the lion was out and Tiny was instantly on the ground--on the sidewalk, in Bakersfield, in high summer--with the lion on top of him. And what Tiny said to me about this was, "So, he injured me, of course, pretty bad, too, but he didn't hurt me, if you see what I mean. That's how you find out if you've got a good lion." I didn't exactly see what he meant, but the remark was impressive.

Scrapper was a pretty good lion, Tiny said, learning all sorts of stunts with astonishing quickness. The only problem was dealing with Scrapper when he got bored. "You could do almost anything with him once, then he started getting opinions," Tiny said. "And then, if you asked him too many times, he got angry. For example, a lot of lions are dumb about hoops. Scrapper wasn't--he got onto it right away. But once he got it, that was as far as his interest went, and you had to respect that lion when he got bored."

The financial balance of a lion and buffalo trainer is precarious at best, and lions are expensive, and it turned out that Tiny had troubles, so he gave Scrapper to a now-defunct wild-animal park in Southern California. It should have been paradise for Scrapper, but it seems that it wasn't. He declined, stopped eating, exhibited general signs of despair. (His nervous troubles didn't, of course, make him any more appealing, any more than a human's nervous troubles do.) The veterinarian finally diagnosed heartbreak and said that if the lion was to be saved, Tiny must be sent for. Tiny was sent for, but it was too late, and Scrapper died, virtually in his arms.

Tiny told me that the vet said the thing is, a lion is different from a dog or a horse. You have a brokenhearted dog or a horse, you can turn the thing around at almost any stage. But "once a lion's heart is broke, then that's what you've got. A brokenhearted lion."

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