For Siegfried & Roy, the master illusionists whose mix of glitz, charm, and white tiger magic symbolizes the thrill of Las Vegas, October 3, 2003, started out as a day of celebration and ended as a night of terror.
At his lavish 59th birthday party in the Mirage Hotel theater that bears the duo’s name, Roy Horn, the dark-haired half of the team, ushered in the early hours of the morning with 500 friends and fellow entertainers. He had spent the evening table-hopping and dancing, and at midnight raised a glass to his partner, Siegfried Fischbacher, in celebration of their 44 years together.
“He was in great spirits,” remembers impersonator Frank Merino, an invited guest. “All of his friends were kidding around with him, and he was making jokes and being very playful.” One of the jibes was about his age and eventual retirement.
“I’ll retire only when I can’t do it anymore,” Roy shot back in his heavy German accent, alluding to the physical strength necessary to swing on ropes 30 feet above the audience and handle the 600-pound tigers that were the centerpiece of the act. To a man so fit and lithe, that day seemed a long way off. “It is incredibly dangerous, and we took Roy, this superman, for granted all of these years,” says fellow Vegas magician Lance Burton.
But less than 24 hours later, Roy lay near death in the trauma unit of University Medical Center. Even in a town famous for risky wagers, few were betting he would survive the night. In 30,000 perfectly timed shows with elephants, lions, tigers, cheetahs, and sharp-beaked macaws, Siegfried & Roy had never had a serious mishap. Their act, seen by some 400,000 people each year, was a pastiche of Vegas razzle-dazzle: daredevil theatrics, illusions and, of course, animals.
The lions and tigers were Roy’s domain, and his ability to communicate with them was marvelous and mysterious at the same time. Roy didn’t so much train the animals as bond with them through a technique he called “affection conditioning,” raising tiger cubs from birth and sleeping with them until they were a year old. “When an animal gives you its trust,” Roy had said, “you feel like you have been given the most beautiful gift in the world.”
But on the night of October 3, that trust was broken. Forty-five minutes into the show, at about 8:15 p.m., Roy led out Montecore, a seven-year-old white tiger born in Guadalajara, Mexico. The 380-pound cat became distracted by someone in the 1,500- member crowd and broke his routine, straying toward the edge of the stage. With no barrier protecting the audience, Roy leapt to put himself between Montecore and the front row, only a few feet away. The tiger kept coming. Roy gave him a command to lie down, and Montecore refused, gripping the trainer’s right wrist with his paw.
“He lost the chain [around the tiger’s neck] and grabbed for it, but couldn’t get it,” says Tony Cohen, a Miami tourist who was sitting ten yards from the stage. With his free hand holding a wireless microphone, Roy tried repeatedly tapping Montecore on the head, the sound reverberating through the theater. “Release!” Roy commanded the tiger. “Release!”
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Montecore relaxed his grip, but Roy had been straining to pull away, and fell backward over the tiger’s leg. In an instant, Montecore was on top of him, clamping his powerful jaws around Roy’s neck. Now Siegfried, standing nearby, ran across the stage yelling, “No, no, no!” But the tiger was resolute, and dragged his master 30 feet offstage “literally like a rag doll,” as another witness recalls.
A couple of gasps went up in the crowd, though many people thought the incident was part of the act. “It wasn’t like he grabbed him viciously,” says audience member Andrew Cushman. “He just grabbed him by the throat and walked offstage.”
Siegfried would later say that Roy had fallen ill from the effects of blood pressure pills; Montecore, he insisted, realized something was wrong and was only trying to protect Roy. But animal behaviorists put little stock into that notion. They say it’s more likely that Montecore was on his way to delivering a killing bite, much as a tiger in the wild would bring down an antelope.
“They’re predators, so who can really know what goes on in their minds?” says Kay Rosaire, who runs the Big Cat Encounter, a show near Sarasota, Florida. “Even though they’re raised in captivity and they love us, sometimes their natural instincts just take over.”