Doug Bruns

An alligator named Al walked into a bar…

In Adventure, Life, Nature, The Examined Life on April 19, 2012 at 6:00 am

Roy Horn and Montecore

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, rendering him near death. That same week it was reported that 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 need frequent stimulus. I admit that. I used to grow easily bored; now I just get bored, neither easily nor growing to it. As a younger man I sought adventure. Adventure rendered me focused. It was not boring. As a species we have settled in for the long haul and occasionally 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, chased by Montecore’s ancester out trolling for lunch. Surely some of those genes remain, tucked away in the dark recesses. They are dormant, until triggered, a tonic against modern existence. For some, ignoring them is not an option. Others, less inclined to primal urges, find release in watching, dare I say, being entertained by, the exploits of others.

People watched Sigfreid and Roy, not just for the costumes and the razzle-dazzle, but also for the chance that something untoward might happen. Men get into close quarters with big animals. The door locks behind them. The animals behave. But they pace. The men force smiles. It’s not natural. It’s an act played out on the far edge of reality, a horizon to which we glue our eyes and hold our breath. It’s 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 as humans we can exercise our will to such a degree that nature and risk and danger will stop cold against our gaze and we will be rendered safe–in essence, that we are in control. How else does the guy in Harlem sleep with a tiger and an alligator at bay?

Adventure and risk-taking are actions linked by the elements of excitement and diversion and the possibility of death. In practice, it’s not that far removed from Aristotle’s catharsis–except that here, the participant seeks to experience a catharsis from life itself. It delights me, even thrills me, that ever so many thousands of years later we still sense the impulses of our mute ancestors. These whispers should be occasionally encouraged; otherwise only biology is left us. No matter how transcendent the language, biology is stark: we are but bags of fluid and carbon and delicately woven strands of protein.


Portions of this post appeared previously, about four years ago. My thinking on the subject has changed some. (Does that make me a flipper or a flopper?) I wanted to re-visit the theme. If you find this troublesome, please forward a copy of your receipt and I will fully refund the cost of your subscription. Thank you.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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