They would maw me, maim me, attack me –
you name it, they would do it.
I had it all but, as you can see, here
I am sitting in an armchair today.
Irina Bugrimova (1911-2001) was not only Russia's first female lion tamer, but one of the greatest and most innovative in the history of this circus act. In her 35 year long career, she trained over 70 tigers and ligers (the off spring of a lion and tigress), won many awards and in her later years, became a leader for Russia's society for the protection of animals. Bugrimova was attacked by her lions on many occasions and took many trips to the hospital. Despite such recurrent setbacks, she always returned to the work that she loved. As she said herself, shortly before her death at age 91:
They just couldn't find another lass like me.
Irina Nikolajewna Bugrimova was born in Charkov. Her father was a veterinarian and her mother was a ballet dancer. As a youth she excelled in sports and at 17 become a Russian speed skating champion. She was also trained in ballet, horseback riding and motorcycle riding. In her later teens she joined the Charkov circus to learn the trapeze. Now, running away with the circus did not hold the same connotations in the Soviet Union as it did in western nations. Circus performers, like in China, were regarded with similar esteem as performers from the ballet and opera. In some ways, it was a noble profession.
In 1929, Bugrimova transferred to the Moscow Circus and worked mostly as an acrobat and motorcycle rider. She also worked intermittently as a stunt woman for film. There she met two of the greatest animal trainers in the country, Nikolaj Gladilstchikow and Boris Eder. It was at this time that her passion for working with big animals was awoken. After extensive training, she made her debut as a lion tamer in 1939.
Bugrimova's favorite cat was a lion named Caesar, with whom she worked for over 23 years. Caesar even once interceded when another animal was aggressive towards her. However, he was not there to help his mistress when she was attacked by another lion, ironically named Nero, in 1971. This mauling was more severe than previous ones and it effectively ended her career under the big top.
Bugrimova is famous for many of the innovative and creative acts she developed during her time as a performer. She was one of the first trainers to teach a lion how to walk on a high wire. She also developed a signature move, which was to swing with one of her lions sitting in her lap. With Alexander Buslajew, her first husband, she developed a number of acts in which her charges would ride on the backs of horses and on the back of a motorcycle.
Bugrimova is said to have never hit any of her animals and was often heard saying that in order to tame lions, one must become a lion. Even after her retirement, she worked closely with performers and ran the examinations committee of the Moscow circus. She was a unique and passionate performer, attributing her success in the ring to her innate ability to communicate with the lions on a deeper level.
I would go into the cage and get down to work.
In other words, I would do everything I wanted to do and
they obeyed because I wanted them to do it.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/monitoring/media_reports/newsid_1182000/1182020.stm (you can see pictures of her here)