A few years ago Roy Horn’s 7-year-old white Siberian tiger, Montecore, decided to act against six and a half years of complacent dutifulness and attack his long-time trainer, dragging Horn off stage, near death. That same week a 425-pound, 20-month-old Bengal-Siberian tiger mix named Ming had to be removed from a Harlem housing-project apartment, along with his companion, Al—a five-foot-long alligator. Why do people pay to see a man enter a cage with 600-pound cats and pretend to be their friend? And why does someone raise large dangerous beasts in an apartment in Harlem?
I admit that I need frequent stimulus. I used to grow easily bored; now I just get bored, neither easily nor growing to it. I used to like hanging off cliffs sixty feet above the deck. It focused me, was even transcending. I have experienced flow in this state. It is not boring. As a species we have settled in for the long haul and every once and a while some of us heed the urge to stir things up. One hundred-sixty thousand years ago we were sprinting for our lives across the savannah plains, pumped with adrenaline, likely releasing a primal scream, being chased by some monster out trolling for lunch. Surely some of those genes have stayed with us. For some, ignoring them is not an option. Others, less inclined to accept the challenges of an active life, find release in watching, dare I say, being entertained by, the exploits of others. Pornography is a case in point, but that is not the subject here.
People watched Sigfreid and Roy, not for the costumes and the razzle-dazzle, but for the chance that something untoward will happen. And this time they got their wish. Men get into close quarters with big animals. They lock the door behind them. The animals behave themselves. But they pace. The men have forced smiles. It’s not natural. It’s all on the far edge of reality, a horizon we cannot take our eyes off of. We watch and hold our breath. It’s like going to Nascar and waiting for the crash against the wall. Shows like Sigfreid and Roy succeed on the premise that risk and death can be leveraged, that against all odds danger no longer lurks in the soul of the wild animal, that fear can be mastered. How else does the guy in Harlem sleep with a tiger and an alligator at bay? At any minute he could be pounced upon.
Adventure and risk-taking are actions linked by the common elements of excitement and diversion and the possibility of death. In practice, it’s not that far removed from Aristotle’s catharsis–except, here, the participant seeks to experience a catharsis from life itself. It is crazy, but I applaud the species for still occasionally nurturing this hidden twist to our double helix. It delights me that ever so many years later we can still feel the impulses of our mute ancestors.