In 1820, nineteen-year-old Isaac Van Amburgh accepted a position with the Zoological Institute of New York, as the cage boy whose job it was to clean out the cages of the exotic animals kept by the traveling menagerie. To say it was his dream job would probably be a bit of a stretch, but like most of us, Isaac had to do some grunt work before he got his big break.
That break came just a year later when one of the owners of the menagerie saw that young Isaac had a way with the lions. It turned out he had a knack for training them. He would eventually go on become the person most often credited with beginning the art of lion taming for show, an act that would become as linked with the circus as clowns, elephants, and P.T. Barnum.
For this reason, when my oldest son realized a camp he attends would have a circus theme this year and for one of their special events, he would need a circus-themed costume, he chose to be a lion tamer. And because he’s an extremely clever kid with a quirky sense of humor, he decided to be a lion tamer who is allergic to cats.
I love the way he thinks, but he may be overconfident in my skill as a costumer. I like to believe I’m fairly clever, too, and I can be crafty when called upon. Like my own mother always did, I keep a few pieces of poster board stuffed behind my dresser just in case one of my kids suddenly remembers the science fair is tomorrow. And I barely batted an eye when he came home from school earlier this year needing an Egyptian pharaoh costume for a social studies speech the next day. Thank goodness bathrobes are so versatile.
But then after weeks of asking him if he had a handle on his lion tamer costume, he finally told me a few days before camp, all he needed was a lion and a red tuxedo jacket, preferably with sequins.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to find a red tuxedo jacket for a twelve-year-old on a poster board budget and with two days notice, but it’s not exactly an easy task. What we came up with was a red raincoat that with a great deal of red duct tape and some shiny gold craft tape looked kind of okay from a distance.
And really, keeping a lion tamer at a distance probably isn’t such a bad idea anyway. Because lions are wild animals, and unless you are Isaac Van Amburgh, they may bite off your head. Actually it’s surprising they didn’t do just that to Van Amburgh, who earned himself a great deal of fame and wealth by becoming the first man to stick his head inside the open jaws of a lion.
We’re talking the kind of fame that won him the attention of Queen Victoria, who even became a groupie of his for a time, taking the time to catch his act about half a dozen times in a matter of weeks. And this was even in the days before YouTube.
The queen was so taken with the performance that she commissioned a painting of her favorite daring (and incredibly stupid) animal trainer. In it, Van Amburgh is pictured wearing a Roman gladiator ensemble, his preferred costume since shiny red tuxedo jackets can be challenging to find.
Van Amburgh’s show did receive a fair share of criticism, too. He was, according to his publicity agent, terribly abusive to the large cats, basically beating and strategically starving them into submission. Had he gotten his head chomped by one of them, he’d probably have gotten what he deserved.
Instead, Van Amburgh had a heart attack and died in his bed in 1865. He was only 54 at the time, but for a guy who made his living putting his head into the open mouths of angry, hungry lions, I’d say he lived a pretty long life.