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.

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DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

10 responses to “A man gets into a cage with a tiger…”

  1. I am glad all this risking taking and adventure stuff was removed from me 8 1/2 years ago when I stopped drinking. I have had all the adventure I want at 61. A real adventure nowadays is spending and afternoon with my granddaughter who will 8 on Christmas day. She’s my tiger now.

  2. Aaron Dietz says:

    The nearest many get to danger is poisonous spiders. Yet, I’m totally okay with spiders. I talk to them. And they don’t really show up unless they have something to say.

    Sometimes, people say to me, I admire your attitude toward them, but I couldn’t do that. I’m too afraid they’ll bite me or something. And then I say, “Hey. They’re smart. They know where you sleep. If they want to bite you, they’ll just do it.”

    Of course, tigers usually don’t wander into our homes at night.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      A ~ I’m curious. When they, that is, the spiders, show up with something to say, can you understand them? I met a woman once, who lived alone on the Allagash, a remote river in northern Maine, who claimed to speak to the critters with whom she co-habiatated. I think she really did–at least in her mind. I don’t think I’d want to converse with a spider. They don’t creep me out. But talking to one likely would.
      Thanks for reading and checking in.
      D

      • Aaron Dietz says:

        Well…I THINK I hear them. And I talk back sometimes but I don’t think they have any interest in what I say (usually). Mostly I just think to them in my head. And then when I’m listening I just sit there and meditate, and try to blank my mind. And inevitably an image pops into my head. It’s weird, but you get used to it after many many times that it happens. And whenever that image pops in there, I’ll open my eyes, and there goes the spider. Mission accomplished.

        So you know. At least if you want to talk to them, you don’t have to actually open your mouth, which can seem embarrassing at first.

      • Erika Rae says:

        Doug – Aaron has a special thing going with those spiders. They advise him on spiritual matters:

        http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/adietz/2010/03/spiders-are-my-spiritual-advisors/

        • Gloria says:

          My son, Indigo, has me pull up Aaron’s spider piece from time to time. He thinks it’s magical. That’s a good piece.

  3. What about the impulses of the tiger’s mute ancestors? There’s only three of them: Bite, fuck, and rest. It’s not like roulette, what you end up with.

  4. Don Mitchell says:

    Doug, you might enjoy the film “Cheap, Fast, and Out of Control,” by Errol Morris.

    Naked mole rats, robotics, topiary, and lion tamers.

  5. Erika Rae says:

    The things some people do to mock death and therefore feel alive…ha! You just gotta admire it at some level, eh? ( :

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