Manicured image as “positive reinforcement” trainer & conservationist was, like the Siegfried & Roy show, largely illusory
LAS VEGAS––Entertainer Roy Horn, 75, whose illusion acts with longtime partner Siegfried Fischbacher famously featured white tigers, pythons, and elephants, died on May 8, 2020 in Las Vegas, his home for nearly 50 years, from complications of COVID-19.
Siegfried & Roy show publicist Dave Kirvin told media that Horn died at the Mountain View Hospital in Las Vegas about a week after testing positive for COVID-19 infection.
Performing together since 1959, Siegfried & Roy were the evident inspirations for a generation of white tiger breeders, exhibitors, and would-be media stars, including “Joe Exotic” and “Doc” Antle, featured in the six-part March/April 2020 Netflix “reality” series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, & Madness, directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin.
Tiger act bought $10 million home in Las Vegas
Siegfried & Roy “toured Europe, Japan and other venues,” recalled New York Times obituarist Robert D. McFadden, “ and were featured in a 1999 3D Imax movie, a 1994 television special, and at Radio City Music Hall in New York. They broke records for the longest-running act in Las Vegas, and were among the most popular and highest paid performers on the Strip. They also wrote a book, Siegfried & Roy: Mastering the Impossible (1992).
“Horn and Fischbacher,” McFadden wrote, “who were domestic as well as professional partners, kept their menageries, including dozens of exotic cats, at a glass-enclosed tropically forested habitat at the Mirage [hotel and casino]; at Jungle Paradise, their 88-acre estate outside of town; and at Jungle Palace, their $10 million Spanish-style home in Las Vegas.”
McFadden recalled that Horn and Fischbacher, “acknowledging that their acts depended on some endangered species, were prominent in various animal conservation efforts, particularly for the white tiger, native to Asia, and the white lion of Timbavati, in South Africa. They raised many of their show animals from birth, and said they were not exploited and were never tranquilized.”
Exhibit A for banning white tiger & lion breeding
But animal advocates, while conceding that Horn and Fischbacher may have treated their animals much more kindly than most animal-using entertainers, tend to have viewed those “conservation efforts” as mostly eyewash, meant to burnish the Siegfried & Roy show image.
A nine-member coalition, headed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, on May 19, 2017 formally petitioned the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to initiate the federal rulemaking process to make breeding either white tigers or lion/tiger hybrids, as Siegfried & Roy did to maintain their menagerie, a violation of the Animal Health Protection Act of 2002 and the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.
Charged the petitioners to the USDA, which has yet to act in response, “Despite the known risks and lack of conservation value associated with breeding to create white tigers, exhibitors like Siegfried & Roy continue to mislead the public into believing that they are a rare subspecies rather than a genetic anomaly. Siegfried & Roy have had as many as 58 white tigers in their inventory at one time. The pair continue to breed to create white tigers for exhibition at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden at the Mirage in Las Vegas.”
Petition spotlighted “Joe Exotic” years before Netflix
The PETA-led petition to the USDA also described the activities of many other white tiger and lion/tiger hybrid breeders.
“In Oklahoma, exhibitor Joe Schreibvogel,” also known as Joseph Maldonado and now as Tiger King star ‘Joe Exotic,’ “sells white tigers, ligers, liligers, and tiligers to private owners and exhibitors all over the country,” the petition to the USDA alleged.
U.S. District Court Judge Scott Palk on January 23, 2020 sentenced “Joe Exotic” to serve 22 years in prison for having solicited the murder of Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin in 2018.
Convicted of the murder plot in April 2019, “Joe Exotic” was convicted at the same time of nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, by shotgunning five tigers in October 2017 and by illegally offering tiger cubs for sale between November 2016 and March 2018.
The PETA-led petition also spotlighted “Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle, also featured in The Tiger King, whose South Carolina roadside zoo, like the facilities formerly owned by “Joe Exotic,” has a long history of Animal Welfare Act violations.
“Antle takes his experiments to a whole new level,” the petitioners charged, “by breeding to create hybrid white ligers.”
Siegfried & Roy act originated in post-World War II Germany
Horn and Fischbacher, by contrast, have been widely credited with helping to popularize “positive reinforcement” animal training, but may also have done more to popularize and promote traffic in white tigers, developing the market served by “Joe Exotic,” Antle, and others, than all previous white tiger breeders combined.
Wrote McFadden, “Roy Uwe Ludwig Horn was born on October 3, 1944, in Nordenham, Germany, near Bremen. Like Fischbacher, who was five years older and raised in Rosenheim, a village in Bavaria, Horn grew up in the turmoil of wartime and postwar Germany. While Fischbacher was drawn to magic, Horn was taken with animals, including his wolf-dog Hexe, and a cheetah, Chico, at a zoo in Bremen where the boy took an after-school job feeding animals and cleaning cages.”
Horn, at age 13, in 1957 became a cabin boy on a German cruise ship.
Cheetah named Chico
Continued McFadden, “Fischbacher, a steward, was entertaining passengers with magic tricks, and Horn caught his act.”
Recalled Horn to interviewers many years later, “I told Siegfried if he could make rabbits come out of a hat, why couldn’t he make cheetahs appear?”
Horn eventually smuggled the cheetah Chico aboard the ship in a laundry bag. Siegfried developed an illusion routine featuring Chico, performed at a variety of venues in Germany and Switzerland before mostly small crowds until in 1966 Princess Grace of Monaco saw them at a charity performance in Monte Carlo “and gave them a rave notice,” recounted McFadden.
“A rush of publicity ensued. Adding animals and tricks, they were soon playing nightclubs in Paris and other European cities. They made their Las Vegas debut at the Tropicana in 1967,” McFadden continued, “and by the early 1970s, having made Las Vegas their base, they were under contract at the MGM Grand.”
Money made the tigers go around
Moving to the Frontier Hotel in 1981, Siegfried & Roy during the next seven years performed before three million people there.
“In 1987,” McFadden summarized, “they signed a five-year $57.5 million contract with Steve Wynn, owner of the planned $640 million Mirage casino-hotel, a deal Variety called the largest in show business history. It included $40 million more for a new theater for the show,” plus the $18 million Secret Garden animal habitat.
Headliners at the Mirage from 1990 to 2003, adding white tigers to the act in 1995 after purchasing a pair from the Cincinnati Zoo, Siegfried & Roy at peak performed before 400,000 people a year, generating $44 million in revenue.
Birthday attack stopped the show
That ended abruptly on Horn’s 59th birthday in 2003. Midway through a solo show with a seven-year-old white tiger named Mantecore, the tiger refused to lie down on command. Horn rapped Mantecore on the nose with his microphone. Mantecore swiped at Horn’s arm. Horn stumbled. Mantecore seized Horn by the neck, crushing his windpipe, and dragged Horn off stage as Horn tried to beat him away with the microphone.
Forced to suspend the Siegfried & Roy shows, the Mirage laid off 267 workers, but continued to house the Siegfried & Roy animals, including Mantecore, at the Secret Garden.
Horn and Fischbacher contended that Mantecore “had been unhinged by a woman in the front row with a beehive hairdo,” McFadden recalled, and after Horn tripped, “picked him up by the neck, as a tigress might a cub, attempting to carry him to safety.”
The USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, however, “discounted all such theories and called it a simple attack by the tiger,” McFadden noted.
“Treating the cats like props”
Former Siegfried & Roy trainer Chris Lawrence, 46, in March 2019 gave a different explanation to The Hollywood Reporter.
“Many of the handlers thought that Roy was treating the cats more like props than he was respecting them for who they were,” Lawrence told The Hollywood Reporter.
Lawrence claimed that he himself “actually talked Roy into using the tiger that would ultimately maul him and end the most successful stage show in the history of Las Vegas.”
Said Lawrence, “What Roy did was, instead of walking Mantecore in a circle, as was usually done, he just used his arm to steer him right back into his body, in a pirouette motion. Mantecore’s face was right in (Horn’s) midsection. Roy not following the correct procedure fed into confusion and rebellion.”
Lawrence tried unsuccessfully to lure Mantecore away from Roy with raw meat, but was knocked down, along with Roy.
Oldest Siegfried & Roy tiger died at Big Cat Rescue
Siegfried & Roy, with Mantecore, performed only once more together, for a cancer charity benefit in 2009.
Wrote Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Mike Weatherford then, “Siegfried Fischbacher and Horn were trying to figure out when and how to bow out gracefully even before the accident that put an abrupt end to their show. The Mirage hit had been running for thirteen and a half years and 5,750 performances. Horn had just celebrated his 59th birthday. Fischbacher had already passed 60.”
Mantecore died on March 19, 2014, at age 17––old for a tiger, but not nearly the oldest of the tigers Siegfried & Roy bred.
That tiger, 21 or 22 years of age, either way one of the half dozen oldest tigers on record, and one of two tigers within that elite half dozen to share the name Bengali, died on May 31, 2016 at Big Cat Rescue on the outskirts of Tampa, Florida. Siegfried & Roy had sold him to a circus. The circus retired him to Big Cat Rescue in 2000.
Another former Siegfried & Roy tiger, Sarmoti, acquired at the same time, died at Big Cat Rescue at age 20 in 2013.
Sarmoti, Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin told ANIMALS 24-7, “is an acronym for Siegfried And Roy, Masters Of The Impossible.”