Siegfried and Roy: The Night of the Tiger Attack

What really happened when a tiger attacked Roy.

By Alanna Nash from Reader's Digest | April 2004

Some members of the show who witnessed the incident say the cat didn’t necessarily mean to kill, but was confused by the break in the routine and angry at being disciplined. They believe the stress of the situation caused Montecore to turn on the man who had worked with him almost daily from the time he was six months old.

Whatever the cause, horrified stagehands backstage sprayed the tiger with a fire extinguisher to get him to free Roy. When that failed, they beat the animal about the head with the butt end of the extinguisher. Montecore finally ran to his cage. The tiger, they later learned, had torn Roy’s jugular vein, barely missing the carotid artery.

“There was a lot of blood,” reports dancer Mike Davies. “A lot.” Roy, still conscious, muttered, “Don’t shoot the cat.” A crew member managed to temporarily stop the severe bleeding, while cast members formed a prayer circle. Meanwhile, a trauma team as- sembled at University Medical Center, and as Roy labored to breathe, an ambulance screamed through the neon night. Before the story hit the papers, producer Kenneth Feld had canceled the 13-year-old show, telling more than 200 cast members to look for other work. Siegfried & Roy, the most popular act in the history of Vegas, was apparently over.

The news spread quickly through the all-night community, and vigils sprang up at the hospital and at the Mirage. Along the Strip, few performers were more admired than these two, who met as young men working on a German cruise ship. When they brought their magic act to Vegas in 1967 they helped transform a town then ruled by crooners, off-color comics and topless dancers. In 1988 they signed a record-breaking, five-year, $57 million deal with casino developer Steve Wynn to stage a Broadway-meets-Barnum & Bailey extravaganza at the Mirage, then still under construction.

Soon they were Vegas royalty, living in an opulent compound they called the Jungle Palace, where a replica of the Sistine Chapel adorned the ceiling — as well as a separate 100-acre estate, Little Bavaria, outside of town. There, 63 tigers and 16 lions, none of them declawed, had the run of the properties, including Roy’s bedroom and the pool. Roy meditated with at least one tiger every day.

While enormously wealthy, Siegfried and Roy were also incredibly generous. In particular, they were benefactors of the local police canine corps and the USO. As they told interviewers over the years, they were awed that, in Vegas, two sons of abusive, alcoholic fathers — both soldiers in Hitler’s army — were able to achieve their dreams and so much more.

Siegfried, who was always somewhat wary of the big beasts, was the intense, quiet one, the consummate magician and technical wizard, the brain behind the disappearing acts. Roy had his own animal magnetism, and could command the big cats with the flick of a finger. Siegfried and Roy, says their friend Robin Leach, “are so closely intertwined they’re like brothers. Without one, there isn’t the other. They have an extraordinary relationship — the real meaning of the word love — that most people would want, particularly married couples.” Or as Siegfried puts it, “It has always been about together.”

At the hospital the night of the attack, Siegfried was in shock, recalled his friends Robert and Melinda Macy, who wrote a souvenir book Gift for the Ages with the pair. On the way to the trauma center, paramedics had stanched Roy’s massive blood loss, and he was immediately taken into surgery. There, the medical team had to bring him back from the edge at least three times.

Shortly after 11:30 p.m., they wheeled him out of the unit and into another part of the hospital. But early the next morning, Roy suffered a “pretty big stroke,” in the words of one physician, and was returned to surgery at 9:30, where doctors performed a large decompressive craniectomy, temporarily removing about a quarter of his skull to relieve swelling on his brain. (The excised portion was placed in a pouch in his abdomen to keep the bone tissue alive.) He suffered some paralysis on his left side, and his windpipe was crushed. Placed on a ventilator, he was unable to swallow or speak.

Yet amazingly, he responded to Steve Wynn only days later, squeezing his hand once for “yes” and twice for “no,” and answering in the affirmative when asked if he could handle such an ordeal. He also indicated that he wanted to see his pug-nosed dog, Piaf, who was brought to the hospital for a visit. “It is all but miraculous that he is alive,” his neurosurgeon, Dr. Derek Duke, told the press.

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