VEGAS MYTHS RE-BUSTED: Tiger Attack Wasn’t Siegfried & Roy’s Fault

Posted on: October 20, 2023, 08:07h. 

Last updated on: October 24, 2023, 10:33h.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Vegas Myths Busted” publishes new entries every Monday, with a bonus Flashback Friday edition. Today’s entry in our ongoing series originally ran Oct. 9, 2023. However, due to a technical error on our part, it did not get picked up by Google’s search engine.

What happened at Siegfried & Roy’s infamous final show 20 years ago last week — which ended not only the career of the most popular magic act since Houdini, but also the era of caged animals performing acceptably for audience amusement in Las Vegas — was tragic and most certainly an accident.

However, it wasn’t the freak accident that it was presented to the world to be.

Roy Horn and Mantacore
Roy Horn performs “The Rapport,” the routine that nearly ended his life 20 years ago, with Mantacore, the 400-lb. white Bengal tiger who nearly killed him. (Image: ABC News)

During a routine performed in front of 1,500 shocked spectators at The Mirage in Las Vegas on Oct. 3, 2003, Mantacore, a 400-pound Bengal tiger, bit into Roy Horn’s neck. It damaged an artery carrying oxygen to his brain, crushing his windpipe, and leaving the illusionist partially paralyzed for the last 17 years of his life.

Immediately following the accident, blame was ascribed everywhere but to Horn, handler of the duo’s big cats. (Siegfried Fischbacher, Horn’s partner, handled the illusions.)

Roy Horn, who cared for the duo’s 50 or so big cats, feigns sleeping with one in an undated photo. He claimed to have slept with each of them as cubs until their first birthday — by which time they weighed about 200 lbs. (Image: Everett Collection)

Mirage founder Steve Wynn, back when he was still highly trusted, went on local TV blaming a woman in the front row for distracting the tiger with a wild beehive hairdo. Another popular theory, suggested by MGM after it received e-mails about it, held that an anti-gay terrorist had sprayed a behavior-altering scent in the theater. Fischbacher himself told reporters that the tiger was actually protecting his friend from some perceived threat.

The truth, according to an animal handler who witnessed the tragedy from the wings, is that it was Horn’s fault. Chris Lawrence, who wasn’t peddling a book or screenplay about his experience and who didn’t profit in any known way by describing it, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019 that Horn royally screwed up on stage that night.

Cat’s Out of the Bag

In a routine called “The Rapport,” Horn would walk one of the duo’s 50 or so tigers (usually Mantacore) in a circle into the spotlight, where he would introduce the 400-pound, 7-foot-long wild animal to the crowd.

Roy would always announce that it was the tiger’s first time on stage, which was a lie designed to make audience members feel that they were witnessing something special. In Mantacore’s case, he had already performed “The Rapport” more than 2,000 times by then.

During the routine, Horn would lower himself to the floor opposite the big cat, who also got down. He would place his microphone by the tiger’s mouth and command him to speak. On cue, the tiger would roar. Horn would then jump to his feet, at which point the tiger would place his front paws on Horn’s shoulders and the two would appear to dance off stage together.

It was a popular routine and helped perpetuate the illusion that tigers — or at least Siegfried & Roy’s tigers — were sweet creatures capable of human-like behavior and empathy.

For whatever reason, Mantacore (frequently misspelled “Montecore” or “Mantecore”) just wasn’t feeling the routine on that fateful night. He refused to follow Roy’s lead, wandering far from his stage mark.

Roy Horn is transported to a hospital, where he flatlined and had to be revived multiple times. (Image: Hollywood Reporter)

Unwilling to grind the show to a halt, Horn decided to continue, only with a brand new ad-lib. This was his nearly fatal mistake, according to Lawrence.

“Instead of walking Mantacore in a circle, as is usually done, he just used his arm to steer him right back into his body, in a pirouette motion,” the trainer said.

Mantacore considered this surprise shove an act of aggression and retaliated. He grabbed Horn’s shirt sleeve in his mouth and refused to let go.

Horn tried backing away, repeatedly yelling “No!” while smacking Mantacore on the nose with his microphone. Because the mic was on, thuds echoed through the stunned-silent theater.

Despite the show’s success at humanizing its quadrupedal performers, Mantacore was still clearly a very wild animal.

The Bite Heard ’Round the World

Mantacore finally let go but was now contemplating his next move in response to what he perceived as his trainer’s unrelenting off-script aggression. According to Lawrence, that’s when he walked on stage from the wings — running might have upset Mantacore further — and attempted to positively distract the tiger by emptying a treasure of raw cubed steak onto the stage.

The New York Post announces the tragedy on its front page, in its inimitable way, on Oct. 5, 2003. (Image: New York Post)

When that approach failed, Lawrence grabbed Mantacore’s leash. This allowed Horn to back up. However, the illusionist’s retreat caused the tiger to break away from Lawrence and leap forward, knocking Horn to the stage. Mantacore then climbed onto Horn’s torso and bit into the right side of his neck.

In the moment still likely to trigger PTSD for surviving witnesses, Mantacore then stood on his hind legs, lifting Horn’s limp and bleeding body off its feet and into the air by the wound, and dragged it off stage.

Lawrence’s version of events was corroborated by nearly all witnesses who provided statements over the years.

Backstage, Mantacore only let go of Horn once Lawrence’s supervisor jammed both index fingers into his mouth, causing him to bite himself — an emergency response called “fish-hooking.” At the same time, another employee followed Lawrence’s suggestion and sprayed Mantacore with a fire extinguisher.

Siegfried & Roy
Roy Horn and Siegfried Fischbacher with an unidentified friend in 1991. According to tiger trainer Chris Lawrence, Horn was also to blame for spending less and less time with his tigers before the shows, eroding the trust between animal and performer.(Image: Mark Seliger/August)

The Cover-up

There were never any wild beehive hairdos or terrorist scents. It wasn’t about saving Roy from any perceived threat. It was a simple mishandling of a tiger that was just being a tiger — by someone who should have known much better.

All of this horror could have been avoided if Horn simply stopped the show as soon as Mantacore refused to cooperate, instead of attempting to force the wild animal back to his mark.

Horn could have explained to the audience that tigers are wild animals and that sometimes, wild animals don’t want to be controlled and you have to honor that. It would have made for a superb teachable moment and maybe an article or two in the local and national media. And Siegfried & Roy could have continued on to a retirement of their own making, most likely with no life-or-death emergencies.

The world might have learned the truth sooner, but The Mirage’s owner, MGM, has never allowed video footage of the incident to be released. At first, corporate brass insisted that no footage even existed. Only after it was revealed that Siegfried & Roy taped their performances every night did MGM admit to its refusal to release it.

And, since this was four years before the iPhone and two years before YouTube, there were no audience videos for people to judge what happened for themselves.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid himself interfered with an investigation conducted by the Department of Agriculture, which looks into all domestic animal attacks. Nevada’s senior lawmaker argued that his state’s largest employer shouldn’t have to release the video.

As difficult as this is to believe, Reid even drafted an amendment to a spending bill mandating that no federal funds could be used to subpoena this specific tape. (The bill passed without the amendment, but still.)

Eventually, a compromise was struck where MGM allowed the federal agency to view the video once, but not to acquire it.

The USDA closed its investigation in 2005 with no official determination of what set off Mantacore. However, it did note that the show failed to protect its audiences because of the lack of a barrier separating the animals from the crowd. For that, it issued a letter of noncompliance to Siegfried & Roy’s production company carrying no penalty.

White Tiger Lies

Wagons were circled because a lot of important people were trying to protect a lot of things that were important to them 20 years ago.

First and foremost, Siegfried & Roy — and their powerful friends — were trying to protect their reputation and legacy as the greatest tiger act the world has ever known.

U.S. Senator Harry Reid
The late U.S. Senator Harry Reid interfered in an investigation into the tiger attack, arguing on behalf of MGM that it shouldn’t be forced to release its video footage. (Image: Wikipedia)

And, though the extent of Horn’s injuries soon made clear that their $45 million-a-year show was a goner — destined to be replaced by Cirque du Soleil’s “The Beatles LOVE” in the same theater a little over two years later — it felt to many people like Las Vegas itself was on trial.

Had tourists been drinking the Las Vegas Kool-Aid for too long? Perhaps this adult Disneyland was more like Jurassic Park, where greedy humans pretend to conquer nature, only to be eventually proven wrong in tragic ways certain to emotionally scar — and perhaps even to injure — paying audiences.

This was a rare demonstrable case in Las Vegas history where a conspiracy theory would have proven correct.

“I did it because I was trying to save Las Vegas from embarrassment,” Reid, speaking shortly before his 2021 death, explained his unbelievable amendment to journalist Steven Leckart on the Apple podcast, “Wild Things.”

“Siegfried and Roy were tremendously important to Nevada because they really drew the crowds, and they entertained very, very well,” Reid continued. “I think they were part of making the city what it is today, so I wanted to make sure that we did everything we could to make sure that (animal-rights activists and gaming regulators) didn’t do anything that hurt Las Vegas.”

One of the last known images of Siegfried & Roy together, taken in 2017, shows former Vegas performer Line Renaud welcoming the duo to a party in her honor. Horn died in 2020 of complications from COVID-19, Fischbacher a year later of pancreatic cancer. (Image: KSNV-TV)

One Final Illusion

As one of their last public acts as a duo, Siegfried & Roy appeared on Entertainment Tonight in 2014, teasing that they would announce “what really happened” on stage that night.

In the clip, which can be found on YouTube, Horn tells a highly suspect story that attempts, once and for all, to absolve himself of all blame for the incident. In the story, he passed out onstage from a naturally occurring stroke. (He definitely had one, though whether it was before or after the attack remains a subject of debate.)

According to Horn, Mantacore, fearing for Horn’s safety, gently took hold of his neck, like a mother would her cub, and carried him offstage. The accidental bite and ensuing blood loss actually relieved the pressure that was building in his brain, saving his life.

“It was an absolute blessing,” Horn claimed.

Horn spun this story even further on Facebook, claiming to have revived Mantacore, administering mouth-to-mouth when the cub was born not breathing.

Horn wrote that the dear tiger was only returning a favor: “I saved his life and then he saved mine.”

In a way, a myth is only another type of illusion, isn’t it?

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