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L.A. STORIES : She Could Tame Tigers--and Little Boys

June 29, 1995|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The other day, I was eating lunch at my favorite restaurant, Philippe the Original, "Home of the French-Dipped Sandwich," when I glanced up to find Mabel Stark staring back at me. Mabel Stark, the "world's only woman tiger trainer," who died 27 years ago this year.

Miss Stark was posing with a Bengal tiger in a photo hanging in the "Paul Eagles Circus Club" section of the Downtown restaurant--a zone where legendary circus folk hold periodic reunions. I froze in mid-bite.

The last time I saw Mabel Stark I was 11 years old and she was the headline act at Jungleland, an amusement park/zoo in Thousand Oaks made infamous in 1966 when a lion took a bite out of one of Jayne Mansfield's children. My pals and I used to ride bikes to Jungleland long before Jayne Mansfield ever set foot in our hometown, and the highlight of our visits was watching the park's star attraction, Mabel Stark and her tigers.

To our obnoxious boy-brains, Miss Stark was possibly the strangest creature we had ever encountered--a petite, elderly, unsmiling lady with a Harpo Marx hairdo and spangly circus outfit who commanded her striped charges to leap, growl, dance and roll over, punctuating each trick with a comical flourish of her right hand.

Judging by the flourish--to say nothing of the jumping into a ring full of giant-fanged felines for a living--my pals and I concluded that the lady must be drunk, and, as dopey boys will do, we giggled and imitated her gesture until we were apoplectic with laughter. Until, that is, Miss Stark cowed us into an abrupt silence with a glare so powerful and full of indignation that I have never forgotten it.

As I sat there in Philippe's, another memory came back--that of reading the lady's obituary one evening in 1968 in the Thousand Oaks News-Chronicle. Her favorite tiger had died, the obit said, and Miss Stark had retired her act after losing some mobility in her body. A few months later, she drafted a will and farewell note, closed her windows on the world, turned on the gas, and lay down on her kitchen table. She was either 74 or 80, depending on which records you believed.

It was with these strange, long-buried memories that I returned to Thousand Oaks the next day, to see what I might discover about this remarkable figure, and what led her to spend a life in the company of oversize killer kitties.

Jungleland, of course, was long gone--driven into bankruptcy in 1968 by the Mansfield incident and other problems. The fearsome, monolithic Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center occupies the space where Miss Stark once put her tigers through their paces.

I stopped in at the News-Chronicle, recently renamed the Star, to pick up old clippings about the lady.

I learned from her obit that Miss Stark had been married for a few years to "menagerie superintendent" Eddie Trees, who had passed away in 1953. They had no children. There were references to her life touring the world with circuses, 18 maimings by tigers and a semi-retirement performing at Jungleland.

The obit also mentioned--to my great pleasure--that Miss Stark was "at home behind a typewriter" and had written an autobiography. Not surprisingly, it was titled "Hold That Tiger" (by Mabel Stark, as told to Gertrude Orr, published in 1938). I immediately headed for the Thousand Oaks Library, where I was granted limited and very carefully supervised access to their only copy of the book (autographed by Mabel), a prized part of the library's local history collection.

The cover illustration looked like something out of Winnie the Pooh. There was a young, effervescent Stark standing behind a big, fluffy (and possibly smiling) tiger, her arms wrapped lovingly around its neck. The beast looked about as menacing as Garfield, Miss Stark as proud as a parent. The contents weren't as cute.

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For more than twenty-five years, I have been breaking, working, and training tigers . I have been clawed and slashed and chewed until there is hardly an inch of my body unscarred by tooth or nail. But I love these big cats as a mother loves her children, even when they are the most wayward. . . . They can be subdued but never conquered, except by love. And that is the secret of all successful animal training. I have learned it at the risk of my life. . . .

Mine may seem a strange profession for a woman, but it is not physical strength that counts in the big cage. . . . For me there is no greater thrill than stepping into a cageful of those glorious beasts and matching wits with them. . . . Nowadays, when I meet men and women who spend their lives shut up in houses or offices, whose faces are gray with the monotony of humdrum daily existence, I realize how fortunate I was in the choice of my lifework.\f7

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