Sunday, 3 January 2016

Van Amburgh: Animal Trainer or Bully?

Many things interest me- from animal behavior to history. So it was with interest that I came across a reference in a Victorian book to training cats.  The author (Henry Ross) was talking in general terms about the independent nature of cats.

“It must not be inferred, however, that they [cats] are untamable, for every creature is capable…of being trained by man, provided it [the animal] receives due attention.”
This sounds promising – and I went on to read:

“We have sufficient evidence in the feats performed by the lions and tigers of Mr. Carter and Van Amburgh that felines are by no means destitute of intelligent docility.”

Keen to know more, I researched Isaac Van Amburgh, but was horrified by what I read. 

Van Amburgh’s Legend
Born in 1811, Van Amburgh started out from humble origins working as a cage cleaner at the Zoological Institute of New York. He became fascinated by the biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den and the idea of dominating big cats. Indeed, as he went about his work cleaning out the lions and tigers, his employer noticed the commanding control he had over them.

An animal dealer, Titus, with links to the Zoological Institute saw the potential for a novel act, where a man “tamed” wild animals. In his own words:
“Novelty plus publicity meant money.”
Van Amburgh in his early costume of a Roman toga

Titus’ instincts were correct, and the act that made Van Amburgh a rich man, went from strength to strength. He entered a cage containing a lion, lioness, panther, leopard, leopardess, and a black-maned lion. The animals shrank away from him, such was his commanding presence. Then he reclined and commanded each animal to approach him, one by one, and lick his feet in deference.

“The effect of his power was instantaneous. The Lion halted and stood transfixed. The Tiger crouched. The Panther with a suppressed growl of rage sprang back, while the Leopard receded gradually from its master. The spectators were overwhelmed with wonder .... 

Indeed, Van Amburgh was a sensation not just in America, but in England where he performed for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He refined his act, adding in such spectacular feats as putting his head in the lion’s mouth. Victoria, filled with admiration, even commissioned Sir Edwin Landseer to paint Van Amburgh’s portrait. 

Van Amburgh’s Methods
Van Amburgh was a mega-star in his time and his act made him a wealthy man. However his methods were not without controversy, even during his life time, and looking back it has to be said that his training methods were shameful. However, his immoral methods paid off, he earnt a fortune and died a wealthy man safe in his bed.

He regularly beat the animals with an iron bar, and his “training” method was to intimidate the big cats using pain, fear, and hunger. Van Amburgh’s publicity agent  even admitted the lions were starved for days prior to a royal performance, as if this was something to be proud of.
Landseer's portrait of Van Amburgh

In fairness, right-minded Victorians were horrified, but Van Amburgh’s defended his methods by quoting the bible, and Genesis 1:26 saying that God had given man dominion over the animals.

Van Amburgh appears to have been an early proponent of an extreme form of dominance method of training,  so popular in dog obedience circles until it’s debunking in recent years. The physical and mental abuse of animals for human entertainment completely immoral, and beating animals into submission is wholly unacceptable.

Let us hope against hopes that if in the modern age a similar misuse of animals took place for our entertainment, we would not be taken in and object in the strongest terms.

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