Negus the Circus Lion
Negus the tightrope walking lion was a star attraction at Bertram Mills’ Circus at Olympia in the 1950-51 Christmas season.
His trainer Alex Kerr spent three or four weeks living with the lions night and day looking after them and speaking to them in a mixture of German and his own Glaswegian dialect. In this way he got to know each of the lions’ personalities and the lions became familiar with him.
It took six months of patient training to perfect Negus’s tightrope walking act. A four centimetre thick cable was laid on the ground until Negus realised it did not hurt him to walk along it.
Then day after day, tempted by pieces of meat, Negus learned to walk step by step across the rope.
Next the ropes were raised off the ground, at first by 15 centimetres then by half a metre, and so on, up to the final height of nearly two metres. On the extreme right of this picture the trainer’s stick can be seen, telling the lion where to put his next step. Negus is focused completely on the stick.
Isaac Van Amburgh was one of the first famous lion-trainers. Born in America in 1812 he came to London and performed at Astley's Amphitheatre in 1838. He became a favourite of Queen Victoria who saw him perform on seven separate occasions.
The brutal lion-taming methods of Van Amburgh rapidly became outdated, and were replaced by a greater respect for the natural personality of the animal. Carl Hagenbeck had much more sympathy for the psychology of the animals with his famous 'gentling' technique nearly 30 years later.
Hagenbeck tried to understand the mind of the animal, encouraging them to learn tricks through a reward system, associating a soft voice with food and acts of kindness. In the late 19th century, the Russian trainer Vladimr Durov also sought to work with the natural characteristics of the animals. Noticing that a hen scratched the ground for food, for example, he taught her to use a similar movement to play a zither.