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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.