• U.S.

FLORA & FAUNA: Back to Borneo

4 minute read

Two pigeons lay headless on the very greensward of the medieval Tower of London where Anne Boleyn’s head had rolled. “At night,” said one of the Tower’s famed Beefeaters last week, “we heard awful noises in the casements.”Yeoman Quartermaster Thomas Johns set out four traps, and what he caught was enough to startle even that grizzled veteran of two wars. “I thought,” he said, “I was in the wilds of Borneo. I saw nothing like this one in India.” The quarry was a huge and ferocious cat whose writhing body “nearly filled the two-foot cage.”

That was three months ago. Since then Warder Johns has trapped 16 more wild Tower cats which he believes to be the atavistic descendants of pet tabbies kept by troops stationed there during the last war. Last week he was setting his traps for the last of them.

Meanwhile, other British beasts were reverting to type. “A blue tit,” wrote a correspondent to the letters column of the Times of London, “flew in at my window this morning, woke me up by thumping a Balzac novel, and proceeded to reconnoitre a cup of tea.”

Courage in a Cage. With such unwonted ferocity on the march north of the Channel, it was perhaps a bad week for self-styled Animal Trainer Karl Steinmann to prove his courage in Paris. He had come to France from Vienna last June and signed up as a dompteur or wild animal tamer with Pinder’s traveling circus. He was fired after his first appearance, when an elephant which he was supposed to lead around the ring refused to budge. Steinmann took his problem to a Paris lawyer who in turn took it to court. “To say,” roared Lawyer Theodore Valensi, demanding 1,500,000 francs damages, “that a lion tamer cannot control an animal as docile as an elephant is the worst of insult.”

The court listened attentively, and agreed to let Steinmann enter a cage of lions, tigers or black panthers(“Panthers,” said Lawyer Valensi, “are the most ill-tempered beasts”), and prove his courage.

Justice in Time. Paris’ famed Cirque d’Hiver was persuaded to lend its ring and five lions—Pasha, Prince, Romeo, Pigalle and Hamed—for the legal demonstration. “Never turn your back on Prince,” admonished Circus Manager Alexandre Bouglione as Steinmann prepared to enter the cage. A breathless girl in black rushed up to wish the trainer bonne chance. “This,” shouted the lawyer for the defense, “is all irrelevant,” but nobody paid any attention. A court bailiff pulled a green dossier from his overcoat pocket and settled down to take notes.

Steinmann entered the cage in awful silence. He tripped and quickly saved himself. The lions snarled, but none of them moved from the tight phalanx they had formed in the cage’s center. Finally one jumped on a pedestal. “Bravo!” shouted Lawyer Valensi. Two minutes later another lion lazily climbed onto his pedestal. “Fini,” cried Circus Master Bouglione. “Get him out of there. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’ll make a buffet lunch for those lions.”

While the argument raged, Steinmann was plucked from the cage, the cage was dismantled and the elephants were brought in. The lead elephant took one look at the would-be trainer and butted him out of the ring. The bailiff put his dossier back in his pocket and headed for the door. “It may take time,” he said as he left, “but justice will be done.”

Far away in South Africa where beasts are expected to be wild, an even braver hero showed up. To fulfill conditions imposed by the adamant father of his loved one, Suitor Daniel Esterhuyser, 22, trapped and milked a jungle lioness. “It was a tough job,” said Dan, “but thanks to my study of yoga I got half a pint.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com