Last week, we met a lion tamer who used his powers of persuasion to transform his cats into a stately throne. Today, we will examine the defunct practice of corralling large, semi-unpredictable cats into motordromes, training them to sit in sidecars, and tearing ass up perilous inclines with these apex predators in tow.
To convince a lion to act as docile as Burt Ward, carnival workers couldn't simply travel to the Serengeti and issue comically oversized, paw-shaped driver's licenses. No, in August 1930, Popular Mechanics detailed a rider who was training a cub for a lifetime of "I did not sign up for this" stunt racing:
The driver takes as an added passenger a five-month-old jungle cub which crouches in a frame built on the side of the car. The most difficult part of the remarkable stunt is to induce the lion to remain quiet throughout the wild ride, as a move on the part of the animal might be disastrous to both occupants of the car.
Of course, commanding a carnivorous cat to stay put on an automobile while whizzing about near vertical for a motley throng of rye-addled lookie-loos never was an easy task.
In 1938, a lion who belonged to Joseph Dobish, the owner of Wildwood New Jersey's Motordrome Wall of Death, famously escaped and killed an unlucky passer-by.
This particular lion didn't have the temperament for the Wall of Death, but Marjorie Kemp (below) — a stalwart rider on the lion drome circuit — was mauled by her feline companions at least four times throughout her career.
And if having a somewhat confused maneater riding shotgun wasn't dangerous enough for these death-defiers, they could always participate in a variation of the Wall of Death known as the "Race for Life." In a 2006 profile of motordromes, The New York Times detailed this spectacle along with the waning days of the lion dromes:
Once the riders were zooming around the wall, trained lions would be released, and would charge after the motorcycles, swatting with their huge paws. (They usually wouldn't catch the bikes.) [Sonny] Pelaquin's family owned and operated the last of the lion dromes; that era came to an ignominious end after a drunken carnival worker stuck his hand into the lion cage in 1964 and was bitten by a male lion named King. The police were called, and one bullet later, King was gone and the last lion drome closed.
For those of you who wish to watch some lion drome in motion, you can find a clip of one such centrifugal felid over at British Pathé. ("It's a thrill for everybody, spectators, lion, and our cameraman too!") In a reality less preoccupied with the general welfare of human and beast alike, lion dromes and bear wrestling bouts are held every other Tuesday.
("Why yes, our century of progress has culminated in teaching a lion to ride in a car.")
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