Those of you who have read The Book may remember the scene where the lion bites the trainer during the show.
It really happened.
The show was playing Anniston, Alabama, on a rotten lot overrun with tall weeds. Because the steel cage took time to set up, the lion act went first. They appeared in the center ring. It also took time to tear down, which is why the clowns went next, in the other two rings. As the trainer did the act, his Lovely Assistant and Girlfriend sat outside the cage, ready to help if something went wrong.
Nothing ever did. The lions were mostly older females who had been doing the act for years. Occasionally they'd swat at the whip or growl lazily, but they always did the act. They sat up, rolled over, jumped through the flaming hoop. However, there was one young lion, a male with a big, impressive ruff, who was a little less cooperative.
This one day, Rex was feeling particularly wrangy. As the trainer turned to grab a prop, Rex jumped off his perch and strode toward the front of the cage. The trainer snapped the whip; Rex kept coming. The trainer grabbed the chair and stuck it in Rex's face; Rex swatted it away with his huge paw and kept coming, roaring with displeasure.
At this point the trainer tried to get out of the cage, but his girlfriend was blocking the door, frozen in fear.
I was standing just outside of Ring 1, transfixed. All I knew was that something wasn't right, but I didn't realize just how wrong things really were until the trainer started to climb the cage to get away from Rex.
Rex didn't even have to stretch. He lifted his head, opened his mouth, and bit down on the trainer's butt.
One second later, someone – one of the prop guys, I think – fired a fire extinguisher into Rex's face, forcing him back. The trainer lost his grip on the cage and fell back. Someone got the door open and managed to get the lions to retreat into the tunnel that led to their cages while a couple other guys got the trainer out.
At this point the audience started to panic and rush out of the tent. The ringmaster took control. He grabbed the microphone and ordered the audience to calm down, the lions were not loose and couldn't get loose, that the trainer was fine, please keep your seats, ladies and gentlemen, please keep your seats!
Then he announced us.
Yes, he sent in the clowns.
I snapped out of it, shaking off my horror and slipping into character. My partner and I performed our gag as we always did, fake slaps and falls, mugging for the audience, making them laugh while the trainer was bleeding in the backyard waiting for the ambulance to take him to the hospital.