05 April 2016

What Would Win in a Fight Between a Tiger and a Bull?

Sometimes historical research can go off on a tangent when something interesting catches your eye. When I was writing my article 'Tigers, Roller-Coasters and Special Effects: Brisbane's 19th-century Dreamworld', which mentioned the story of a tiger on the loose in Brisbane's George Street, I came across some old newspaper reports of staged fights between bulls and tigers, and quite frankly I was interested in the outcome of these contests. The result was, however, that people can be very stupid and very cruel, and animals can be very reluctant to fight upon demand.

1950 Topps card - 'Terror of the Jungle'.

I will cover three reports of tiger/bull fights here, although an earlier and supposedly fictional account had featured in the 1858 novel Jack of all Trades by Charles Reade. I say 'supposedly' because judging by later reports of actual fights, Reade's account was based on reality. After being placed in the arena, the two animals were reluctant to fight, and so Reade's protagonist poked the tiger with a red-hot iron to try and provoke it. As will be seen below, this behaviour was all-too-normal at these events.

The first account of an actual fight to appear in a Queensland newspaper was in 1898, and told of a fight between a Bengal tiger ('Cesar') and an Adalusian fighting bull in front of 1,300 spectators at the Plaza de Madrid. A seventeen-metre-square cage was erected in the middle of the arena, and the bull was the first to be released into the enclosure:
"The brute immediately began to run round and round his prison, bellowing and throwing up sand and gravel with his hoofs. The instant the tiger entered the cage he gave a roar and bounded on the bull, avoiding the horns, and fixed on his flanks and belly with both teeth and claws. The bull remained still for a few seconds, and then seemed to be sinking backwards to the ground. The spectators thought that all was over, but the tiger let go for a second to take another hold, and in the brief interval was kicked over by the wild plunges of the bull. Before the tiger had time to recover the bull was on him, and, staking his horns into the striped hide, it tossed the tiger into the air. This was repeated four or five times, the bull varying his tactics occasionally by banging his adversary against the bars. When the bull stopped the tiger lay limp on the ground, and the crowd, thinking he was dead, cried 'Bravo, toro.' The bull stood stamping for a moment in the middle of the cage, and then, seeing the tiger did not move, approached and smelt him. But Cesar was only shamming death, and seized the bull's muzzle in his powerful jaws so the animal could not move. Eventually, however, he was released, and, after stamping furiously on the tiger, again caught him on his horns. This time the tossing, stamping, and banging apparently ended in Cesar's death. The cage was then opened, and the bull rushed out and back to his stable. For precaution's sake, the tiger's van was brought up, and, to the general surprise, Cesar rose to his feet, glanced round as if afraid the bull was still there, and then bounded into the van. The tiger was found to have five ribs broken, besides having a number of wounds from the bull's horns. He is expected, nevertheless, to survive. It is said that all wild animals - bears, lions, panthers, and tigers - fare badly in combat with the Spanish fighting bull. Man and the elephant are the only sure victors over these active and ferocious beasts." (The Capricornian, 12 March 1898)

Detail from Henri Rosseau, 'Struggle between a tiger and a bull', c.1900.

Another bull vs tiger fight took place in front of a huge crowd in a bullring at San Sebastian, Spain, in 1904. The fight was staged in a large cage in the centre of the arena. A cameraman was set up behind a barrier to film the event, but he fled in terror when the bull charged him. The Bengal tiger was reluctant to enter the arena, and when it did the Andalusian bull charged him down and gored him, but the tiger caught him in the neck before retreating and positioned himself to pounce. This was repeated occasionally over half an hour before the crowd grew impatient at the lack of action. A photographer climbed into the arena and prodded the tiger with an iron rod through the bars, but the animals simply stood and stared at each other

At this point the furious Homer-Simpsonesque spectators "jumped into the arena and shouted all the names they could think of at the animals, hissed, lit squibs, and danced like mad creatures round the cage". This caused the bull to once more gore the tiger against the side of the cage, which made the wall fall over. Now the heroic bogans who had been taunting the animals fled in hysterical terror, and the Gendarme and everyone with a gun "blazed away indiscriminately" at the tiger. One report had eleven people wounded, but another had fifty being hit with bullets, with fourteen severely wounded, three in a critical condition, and one woman dead. The tiger, which had been too badly injured by the bull to attack anyone anyway, was also shot dead. After this it was torn to shreds by 'souvenir hunters', cutting off parts of the tiger's body as keepsakes. All of which proves that the most dangerous animal of all etc, etc.

Photo from the San Sebastian debacle. The tiger box can be seen to the left of the cage here. (Salt Lake Tribune, 25 September 1904)

The French government moved to ban these fights from taking place in France, although several hundred people gathered in a private enclosure in Marseilles in 1908 to watch just such a fight, this one staged with the intention of filming it. Not all went to plan because although the bull was ready for a fight, the tiger retreated to a corner and stayed there, prompting yet more human stupidity and cruelty. The impatient crowd pelted the animal with bricks and stones, and the attendants prodded it with an iron bar, turned a hose on it, and finally exploded fireworks in its face, but the tiger could not be provoked. It was returned to the cages and a second tiger produced. This one was much hungrier and instantly attacked the bull, which turned and ripped the tiger's shoulder open. The wounded tiger crawled back to its den, after which it was too dark to film any more and the fight was postponed until the next morning. However, when the time came and a tiger was about to be driven into the enclosure again, the police arrived and arrested the promoters, smashed the photographer's cameras, and led the cinematographer away in handcuffs.

'Tiger and Bull' by Alton S. Tobey.

Despite the cameraman's problems at San Sebastian in 1904, a silent movie short of that event called 'Tiger and Bull Fighting' was produced and screened to Australian audiences in 1906. The filming had reached the point where the tiger was pressed against the cage, but audiences were informed that the scene in which the bull supposedly killed the tiger was 'missing'. This movie was in circulation for a few years, and was quite possibly shown in Brisbane, but in 1909 the Sunday Times of Perth advised the film's distributor that they would...
"...do well to drop such films as "Bull and Tiger Fighting," "Bear hunting in Russia", these exhibitions being anything but of an elevating character. Usually the "savage tiger" is an ancient, toothless, doped animal, which can't get out of its own way, and seems glad to crawl into a corner, and die of disembowelment."
Tiger attacking a calf, Roman mosaic, 4th century CE.

The movie itself seems to have died of disembowelment and disappeared, as did the staging of bull and tiger fights in general. For the record, it looks like bulls generally got the better of the tigers, but then these were contests between bulls trained to fight and tigers trained to be docile. There were always plenty of people to watch them, however, and if the producers of Reality TV shows were given half a chance, they would quite happily stage animal fights and no doubt they would find a huge audience too.