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Women and Animals

Everyone knows at least one story about some woman and her numerous pets. Usually, the pets are cats, dogs, or horses, but in some cases they are more exotic. For example, many real photo postcards show women with some surprising animals, including porcupines, beavers, lions, tigers, and huge snakes.

[Woman with Lion]

I personally have several postcards of Claire Heliot, the Lady with the Lions. She was an international star who is sometimes pictured carrying a huge lion across the stage. Unfortunately, like many other trainers of large cats, her career was cut short after she was mauled by one of her animals.

Heliot is just one of a host of women who worked with big cats. Numerous other postcards show different women with their giant cats: "Madame Morelli, and her wonderfully trained but treacherous pets" (also known as "Queen of the Jaguars"); "Vera Robinson, America's Popular Lion Trainer"; "Madame D'Orcy D'Avilly, France's Foremost Lion Tamer"; and a number of other women from the early 20th century.

One well-known American performer, who worked as recently as the 1960s, was Mabel Stark,who was orphaned at 13 and later joined a carnival as a stripper. When the manager left to start his own circus, he invited Stark to join him. She did, choosing to work with tigers. Stark, who had always said that she hoped to die from a tiger's claws, was severely mauled by one when she worked for the Ringling Barnum and Baily Circus. She survived but spent years recovering. Her last job was with Jungle Land in California. After she was fired from this job, she committed suicide.

Snake Ladies and Others

Circus sideshows often featured "snake charmers," or handlers, and many of these were women. In some cases, the snakes were toothless, benign creatures to begin with, but audiences did not seem to care. The sight of scantily clad women stroking and lifting large snakes was worth whatever they paid.

[girl on pony][another girl on a pony]

Circuses were not the only shows featuring snakes. Buffalo Bill's Wild West show had a headliner named Octavia, who was called "the Yankee Snake Charmer." She toured Great Britain with the show and appeared somewhat demure in images. With her poufy hair and her modest costume, she looked more like a Gibson girl than an exotic maid from the Far East.

The Lesser-Knowns and Unknowns

[ Woman holding live porcupine]

Some of my favorite images of women and animals raise questions that cannot be answered. For example, who is this woman and why is she holding a live porcupine? Is it a pet? A trophy? We will probably never know.

The same is true of this woman in her flowered dress and stylish hat. Why is she holding a sleepy lion cub? It's fun to speculate.

[ Woman holding lioncub]
One of the delights of postcard collecting is that certain images introduce me to women I would not have known about otherwise. For example, I bought the card below out of sheer curiosity. The image of the woman and all the beavers caught my eye, and the message was from the woman pictured. She mailed the card in 1951. Green script on the front identifies her: "Dorthy Richards with ten of her beaver family." The front also named Beaversprite Sanctuary.

The name and place piqued my interest so that I did a bit of research on the woman and the sanctuary. I discovered that Richards was an early environmentalist who was a staunch spokesperson and protector of beavers. She was also an author who wrote a book about the experience. Although her name is no longer recognized by most people, I'm glad to have learned about her. I admire her dedication and drive.

[Dorothy Richards with beavers]

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