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36 hours in the water with a lion

When I read the caption stuck on the back of this press photo of a certain Otto Kemmerich I was a bit taken aback, to say the least. According to the reporter,’ the famous German swimmer, accompanied by his trained lion ”Leo” have swum for more than 36 hours in a tank at the Circus Busch at Hamburg’. It was also reported that Kemmerich was planning to swim 50 hours without a break, also with his ‘pet’ and hoped to swim the Channel with Leo.

A bit of internet investigation revealed that the feat took place in April 1928 and that Leo wasn’t a feline at all, but a sea-lion, which suggests that the incompetent journalist had never heard of a cat’s dislike of water and had obviously never been shown any action shots of Herr K together with his  pet. In fairness to ‘SSS’, the idiot in question, something may have been lost in translation from German to English, but surely any decent journalist must read back what he or she has written before releasing it to the world.

If the caption survived the sub-editor’s rigorous scrutiny there must have been red faces all around the press rooms of  the papers that carried the story. Personally, that image of a fully grown lion swimming for 1 ½ days in a tank with a very edible human alongside him will remain with me for a long time.

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The day that May Kovar’s luck ran out

One of the most poignant inscriptions in the celebrity album kept by Swindon landlady Barbara Slocombe is the 'Good Luck to You' which was left by May and Harry Kovar in November 1937. The couple were acclaimed wild animal trainers who specialised in lions and tigers, Harry being acknowledged as one of the greatest big cat trainers in the world. At the time both worked for Chapman’s Circus, but by 1941 they had moved to a more lucrative career in the States.

On 6 July 1944, the Kovars were the act that immediately preceded the discovery of a fire that quickly engulfed the huge tent of Ringling’s Circus in Hartford, Connecticut, where more than 7,000 spectators were watching the show. In the carnage that followed  around 169 were killed and over 700 were injured, many being  badly burned by the paraffin wax that had been used to waterproof the tent canvas. In 1950 a 21 year old former employee of the circus named Robert Segee confessed to what has been called the worst act of arson in American history, but he was never tried.

While the fire blazed the brave May desperately tried to force her animals back into their cages. She survived, but in 1949 her luck finally ran out. In California, during a training session, she was coaxing a recalcitrant lion, Sultan, from his cage, when the animal suddenly attacked her. Watched by her three horrified children, she was badly mauled and her head ended up in the lion’s mouth. She died instantly when her spine was snapped.

May was just 48 at the time. Her daughter (also called May) forged her own successful career with big cats for a number of years, before retiring to raise children. Today, one of those children is writing a book about her grandmother’s exploits. I wonder if those happier days at Mrs Slocombe’s will get a mention.