In March of 2020, Tiger King premiered on Netflix and captured millions into the world of wacky, underground big-cat trainers. Before Joe Exotic was a household name, the spotlight was on Mabel Stark – dubbed one of the world’s first women tiger trainers.
Stark’s early life is relatively unknown, or at least unverified. She liked to embellish her background in interviews by changing her name and adding zany tidbits to her life story. The consensus is that she initially pursued a career in nursing and then entered the carnival scene (quite the career shift). Al G. Barnes circus recruited Stark in 1911, and she began working as an apprentice animal trainer. Not only was she adamant about working with the tigers, but she also developed a new technique in training the tigers. Stark’s love for tigers prohibited her from coaching the animals using conventional methods. Rather than the common practice of whipping the tigers into submission, she rewarded the tigers with meat whenever they followed her commands. To her, the tigers were more than cash-cows; they were her family.
But, occasionally, family likes to bite. Stark was no stranger to the animalistic nature of the tigers. She was frequently mauled and battered by the massive cats. Once, she was dragged unconscious from the tiger cage and had to be treated at a hospital for a broken arm with teeth puncture wounds in it. Even after going through these traumatic experiences, she ended up adopting a malnourished tiger cub named Rajah. She nursed the cub back to health and trained him to perform one of her most infamous acts – a wrestling match between her and Rajah. Audiences found her performance thrilling but terrifying. This combination of scare tactics was her niche, and she grew to become a household name. She went on to perform with Ringling Bros. until they banned wild animal acts in 1925.
In an industry known for its unnecessary animal cruelty, Mabel Stark is an outlier. Her compassion and love for tigers are evident throughout her work in the carnivals. She took enormous, life-threatening risks by working with these animals, but it was her true passion in life. She continued working at various wildlife facilities into her 80s until she overdosed on barbiturates in 1968. Her obituary heralded her as “one of the most celebrated animal trainers in a field dominated by men”.
If you want to learn more about Mabel Stark, I highly recommend checking out The Final Confession of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough. It has great info about her life (albeit, some is fictional or highly exaggerated) and details just how amazing and wild this woman was. She also wrote her own book titled Hold That Tiger: a personal account of her relationships with the animals. This memoir was written in 1938 and is quite a rare find at $200 on eBay. But, if you are interested in further exploring Stark’s version of her intense, thrilling life, I would say it is well worth the price.