LEXINGTON, Ky. (FOX 56) — On Dec. 10, 1889, Mary Haynie, later known as Mabel Stark, was born in Princeton to Lela and Hardy Haynie.

She was one of seven children raised on a family farm until her parents died while she was still young. After briefly living with her aunt, she traveled to Louisville where she became a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital, but she quickly became unhappy with her job.

According to The New York Times, in 1911 Stark was out for a walk in Venice, California, when she was drawn to the Al G. Barnes Circus by a sound.

While inside, Stark saw something that would drastically change her life forever.

She stumbled on a caged Bengal tiger named King and developed a burning passion to be around tigers. Her enthusiasm eventually led Circus Manager Al Sands to hire her as a horseback rider before she became the circus’ wild animal trainer.

A couple of years later Stark was one of the world’s top big cat trainers. Being in the cage with a dozen or more tigers was her happy place.

The NYT said she trained her tigers with kindness and accepted the perils of facing tigers in close quarters. Her act consisted of commanding her tigers to leap through fiery hoops, walk on wires, roll large balls, and even form a large pyramid.

“Mabel Stark. Most fearless woman animal educator in the world, and Prince, the horse-riding leopard of the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus that she raised by hand-feeding.” July 5, 1907. The Butte Daily Post (Butte, MT), Image 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. (Library of Congress)

In 1928, The Gazette, a Montreal newspaper, wrote, “The intrepid and beautiful tiger-tamer puts her tawny cats through a difficult routine, including that bloodcurdling moment when the music stops, one of the tigers rebels and she, after much whip-cracking, shows that she is master.”

Her talents in the cage earned her nicknames such as “Tiger Girl” and “Crazy Mabel.”

Stark spent nearly three decades as a circus performer and another three decades working at Jungleland, an animal theme park in California raising cubs to be performers.

In 1928, Stark nearly lost her life during a performance in Bangor, Maine.

With more than 6,000 fans in attendance, Stark entered the cage unaware her tigers had not been fed for 24 hours. She slipped in the mud and was immediately attacked by two tigers, Sheik and Zoo.

Sheik ravaged her left thigh while Zoo chewed up her right leg. She was dragged out of her cage by a lion tamer and an attendant who was fending off the tigers with spears and guns.

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In her 1938 autobiography “Hold That Tiger”, Stark wrote, “I wondered into how many pieces I would be torn.”

She survived after having a deltoid muscle in a shoulder ripped away, along with one of her breasts, and her scalp nearly torn off.

More than 700 stitches painted her body from numerous bitings, clawings, and other maulings. Yet, the NYT said she never blamed them for any incidents.

In 1967, the Jungleland general manager fired her because the park’s insurance provider would no longer cover her.

Roger Smith, a cagehand at Jungleland and friend of Stark’s said she told him, “If ever I can’t have my tigers, it’s sayonara, my friend.”

Five months after her departure a tiger named Goldie escaped from her pen one day at the park and was said to have been quickly shot and killed.

A biography from Circuses and Sideshows said she was distraught when she learned about Goldie’s fate and believed if she was there she could have led Goldie back to her enclosure.

On April 20, 1968, Stark took her own life at the age of 79.

Other significant dates this week in Kentucky history

Founding of Clark County

On Dec. 6, 1792, Clark County, named after Revolutionary War General George Rogers Clark, was formed after splitting from Fayette and Bourbon counties. Clark County was the 15th county created and covers 255 square miles.

The death of Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, born in Fairview, died on Dec. 6, 1889, in New Orleans.

He was imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Virginia, following the Civil War before spending the rest of his days living near the Mississippi Gulf Coast.


In 1881, Davis’ book, “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” was published, in which he recounted his wartime experiences.