Behind the Tiger King: The eccentric history of zoos, circuses, and lion-tamers in America

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Joe Exotic isn’t the first self-made Tiger-whisperer or Lion Tamer in American history–not by a long shot.The curious man made famous in Netflix’s series, Tiger King, may seem like a novelty–he’s eccentric, there’s no doubt about it–but he’s just one example of men and women who trade in exotic animals through American history.

Since the 19th century, American business owners have seen the potential in exotic animal attractions. Here are some of the most interesting ones we’ve found.

Robbins Brothers Circus

If you’ve watched Tiger King, the name Robinn’s Brothers Circus will ring a bell. We found historic photos of the travelling circus from all over:

In June 1938, the Robbins Brothers Circus came to the East End Grounds and did a parade and three shows. They visited the children at the TB hospital and the Protestant and Roman Catholic Orphanages. Free tickets were given to the boys of the Industrial Home. In this image are, from left to right, (first row) the Ross Brothers Trio of acrobatic clowns—unidentified, Happy Kellums, and Van Wells, the comic cop; (second row) Gordie Crockett and newspaper reporter Charles Lynch. (HR6810.) From East Saint John by David Goss and Harold E. Wright

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Goebel’s Lion Farm, a.ka. Jungleland USA

Home of Leo the MGM Lion

It was really hard to pick just these 7 pictures of this mid-century California locale, so we highly recommend checking out Jungleland, a pictorial history by Jeffrey Wayne Maulhardt.

Founded by Louis Goebel in 1926, this private park began as a support facility for Hollywood and was famously the home of the Leo the MGM Lion and the only female lion tamer in the world, Mabel Stark.

Goebels started out as a butcher of animals used for Lions’ food at Gay’s Lion Farm in 1919, moving up the ranks and eventually becoming a trainer at Universal studios until they shut down the animal division in 1926. Goebel bought six of the lions and a tract of land in Ventura County for $10.

On most days, he would leash his lions to an oak tree, and, inevitably, passing motorists would stop to look. If Goebel was around, he would answer questions. This led to his next plan. In addition to renting out his lions, he decided to open his site to the public and create a roadside attraction. The park enjoyed forty years of growth until a series of missteps and accidents–including the near-death of Jayne Mansfield’s son after a tiger mauled him–led the owners to declare bankruptcy in 1969.

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Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in New Hampshire

Hate to be a broken record, but again, it was truly difficult to narrow this down to the five pictures below. We cannot recommend the pictorial history Benson’s Wild Animal Farm by Bob Goldsack more!

Benson’s Wild Animal Farm (later changed to Park in 1988) was a New England landmark attraction established by John T. Benson. Benson purchased the property in 1922 as a place to quarantine imported animals before they were sold to zoos and circuses. Most circuses and animal trainers at that time obtained their wild animals from Benson, who served as a dealership for the Hagenbeck Company of Hamburg, Germany, the largest dealer in wild animals during that time. Benson learned his trade while traveling with the Bostock and Wombwell Circus in England, and he accompanied it to the United States in 1890.

The word “farm” in its title and corporation papers allowed children 14 years and older to work at the attraction in accordance with child labor laws. As fast food operations were well in the future, Benson’s was the only place in town where, according to child labor laws, teenagers could earn some money. Generations of Hudson teens worked at Benson’s during their high school years

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