Saturday, 3 January 2015
A bear like no other.
There is an old saying in the circus. "Rissley kids and slanging buffers, only the Lord knows how they suffers." A rissley kid is a child tossed about by a foot juggler and performing dogs are known as slanging buffers. The saying is referring to the exploitation of children and animals that has been a cornerstone of show business since the first strolling players plied their trade in the Fertile Crescent. Performing animals are a contentious issue but it has to be admitted that there is a world of difference between something pretty harmless such as dog obedience trials or performing budgies and the savage cruelty of dancing bears. Controlling a dangerous wild animal is problematical at the best of times and working with bears and big cats is always going to have the potential for things going terribly wrong. That frisson of danger is what draws the punters in. Only having complete control of the animal can keep the trainer safe and in the case of performing bears this was achieved by such delightful practises as nose rings and the removal of teeth and claws.
For many years there was a tradition of wrestling bears on the American wrestling circuits. The creature was usually muzzled and may have been de-clawed. The wrestler who worked with the beast would rely on his speed and skill to stay out of harms way until the time was up. It was not an edifying spectacle and certainly had very little to do with wrestling but I suppose that it got a few bums on seats. In the late sixties a young Scottish wrestler called Andy Robin was working the Canadian circuit when he took part in one such exhibition. Andy was fascinated by the experience and was determined to not only train a bear of his own but to do so by befriending the beast and making it a part of his family. The history of wild animal training is littered with the bones of trainers who lost concentration for a moment and paid the ultimate price. As the Grizzly Bear is considered to be one of the world's most dangerous animals there must have been many who thought that Andy Robin had taken leave of his senses when he obtained a grizzly cub and proceeded to play/wrestle with it as it grew up. Andy and his wife Maggie formed a bond with Hercules the bear that might be unique in the annals of animal training. Together the three of them had an adventure that went far beyond the usual wrestling bear act. Hercules became a film star and when he disappeared when on location in the Outer Hebrides the nation held it's breath until he and Andy were reunited weeks later.
Animal behaviourists don't seem able explain why this potentially deadly, 30 stone animal never betrayed the trust that the Robins had in him. You can keep Paddington, Phoo and the rest - Hercules was the bear for me.