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(Note: This is the Chicago Tribune version.)

 

Oct. 5, 2003

Tiger attack on idol shocks Las Vegas

Big cat veteran seized by neck at packed show

(see also my USA Today report on 10/6)

BY STEVE FRIESS
Special to the Tribune

LAS VEGAS: Years ago during a newspaper photo shoot, illusionist Roy Horn was taking a particularly long time coaxing one of his signature white tigers from its cage. A perplexed observer wondered aloud why Horn couldn't just command the animal to come forth.

"These are not trained animals," explained Horn, of the famed duo Siegfried & Roy. "This is like any other relationship. It doesn't always go as planned."

That relationship went horrifyingly awry Friday night during the Siegfried & Roy magic show when a 600-pound tiger bit Horn's neck and dragged him offstage before a sold-out crowd of 1,503 at the Mirage Hotel.

Horn, whose 59th birthday was Friday, underwent more than three hours of surgery after losing a great deal of blood. He was in critical condition Saturday at University Medical Center.

A curtain fell immediately after the attack, and a shaken Siegfried Fischbacher, 64, announced shortly thereafter that the show was canceled.

"Everyone thought it was just part of the act," said Joli Sands, 43, of Montgomery, Ala. "Roy tried to get the tiger off him at first by beating him with the microphone, so it seemed playful, not serious."

His manager, Bernie Yuman, said this was the first time Horn had been injured during a show. "In 44 years he has never had a scratch before this," he said.

The attack sent shock waves throughout the city, where the two performers and their white tigers are among the most revered performers.

"This is like if a bald eagle attacked the president of the United States," said longtime Las Vegas resident Frank Danielsohn, who was eating breakfast Saturday at the Mirage. "They are that big a deal here, both the tigers and the men."

Fischbacher and Horn have been performing with exotic animals for more than 40 years. The German-born men met in 1959 when both worked on an Atlantic ocean liner where Fischbacher was the entertainment director. Horn, a waiter who had smuggled a pet cheetah on board, suggested using the animal to spice up Fischbacher's magic act, and a new genre was born.

The flamboyant pair first appeared in Las Vegas in 1967. They performed at various hotels during the 1970s and '80s, adding Siberian tigers and jaguars along the way.

In 1982 they discovered the endangered white tigers of the Himalayas and brought a pair of cubs to Las Vegas to breed. Their facility at their Las Vegas ranch and at the Mirage is home to about 40 white tigers, most of which are rotated into and out of the magic show.

Horn told the audience Friday night that this was the first performance by the 7-year-old tiger, named Montecore, but MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said that is just a line in the script to heighten the audience's anxiety.

The Mirage show also features snow leopards, spotted leopards, white lions and an elephant named Gilbah.

Siegfried & Roy are big business, selling out almost all of their 10 shows a week and taking in $60 million each year in ticket sales alone at the Mirage. Since becoming the star attraction at the resort in 1990, they have become the highest-grossing act in the city's history. They signed a lifetime contract in 2001 and grace one of the largest marquees on the Las Vegas strip. The indefinite cancellation of the show leaves the jobs of 58 performers and 90 production staffers in limbo.

"We are not concerned with the impact on the act or the hotel," said Bobby Baldwin, CEO of Mirage Resorts Inc., the subsidiary of MGM Mirage that manages the property, as he waited for news at the hospital Friday.

Yet the damage to the brand was obvious immediately. Pop culture expert Alex Shear said the show's success was based largely on the illusion that the duo could turn exotic, wild beasts into obedient, docile pets.

"Where can these guys go from there?" asked Shear, whose collection of 100,000 pop-culture items is being turned into a museum. "Do you want to go watch the next horror show? The fantasy somehow is not there anymore. This is reality. People do not come to Las Vegas for reality. When you are playing with fantasy and the balloon pops, can you patch it?"

Yet if Horn recovers and the show goes on, others expect that audiences will be even more intrigued in an age where dangerous reality has become hugely entertaining.

"In the culture we live in, it'll be part of the appeal," said Hal Rothman, chairman of the history department at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and author of "Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the 21st Century."

"You don't see people rushing off to see people do tricks with butterflies, do you?" he said.

Horn, the only one of the pair who handles the animals, is known as a doting owner and a passionate advocate for the survival of the species. He has been present for every birth and is shown in a promotional video clip at the Mirage rolling around playfully with cub tigers at the couple's estate.

On the show's Web site, Horn says his relationship with the animals is so tight that "they think I'm a strange tiger who walks on two legs."

"The irony about this is that the one person who could try to explain why this happened is the man who was attacked," said Feldman, the Mirage spokesman. "We just don't know."

###

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