A Brief History of Las Vegas’s Controversial Exotic Animal Shows

  • Dirk Arthur, the last Vegas showman to perform with tigers, has now died at 63
  • It all started with Siegfried and Roy, who generated more than $1bn in ticket sales
  • An accident in 2003 ended their amazing career and left Roy with lifelong injuries
  • Arthur tried to keep his shows going despite increasing protests from activists
Siegfried and Roy
Dirk Arthur, the last exotic animal performer in Las Vegas, has died at the age of 63, ending a turbulent love affair between Sin City and tiger shows that began with Siegfried and Roy (pictured). [Image: Shutterstock.com]

The last of the showmen

If exotic animal shows seem a relic of Las Vegas’s past, then they certainly are now. Dirk Arthur, the last entertainer to use exotic animals in a Las Vegas stage show, has died at the age of 63. As reported by Las Vegas Review-Journal, no specific details of his passing have been revealed.

dancers, large-scale effects, and exotic cats

Arthur debuted his show, “Dirk Athur’s Wild Magic” in 1997 in “Jubilee” at Bally’s. It featured dancers, large-scale effects, and exotic cats, including white tigers, leopards, black panthers, Bengal tigers, and even a rare half-ton liger. The show ran right up until 2018 in various incarnations.

Las Vegas had a turbulent relationship with its exotic animal shows, which reached their height in the 1980s with the world-famous Siegfried and Roy. The rise of animal activism and a very public on-stage accident preceded the downfall of that once booming sector of Vegas’s entertainment industry.

To commemorate Arthur’s passing, VegasSlotsOnline News has put together a brief history of Sin City’s once-raging love affair with exotic animals.

Siegfried and Roy

The names of Siegfried and Roy are now synonymous with big cat magic in Las Vegas. Both born in Germany, Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn met on a cruise ship in 1959 when the former was working as a magician and the latter a bellboy. They first developed an obsession for using exotic cats when Roy smuggled a cheetah out of a zoo for Siegfried’s act.

After seeing success in Europe, it was in the late 1960s that the duo first earned their headline slot in Sin City with a full-length magic show. They followed this in 1981 by headlining a variety show called “Beyond Belief” at the New Frontier, and eventually signed a $57m deal with Steve Wynn to perform at the Mirage. They proceeded to sell out a 1,500-seat arena twice a night for a decade.

The 80s and 90s were the pinnacle of the Germans’ success and tales of their luxurious lives are now famous. They lived in a mansion they called the Jungle Palace north of town. Moroccan-themed, the grandiose property featured a mural above Siegfried’s bed – a young nude version of him holding two cheetahs by chains. Roy also created an 80-acre compound in the desert called Little Bavaria to prevent Siegfried’s homesickness.

Michael Jackson wrote them a theme tune called “Mind Is the Magic”

Throughout this period, the duo rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous names at the time. Michael Jackson wrote them a theme tune called “Mind Is the Magic,” while Robin Williams, Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbra Streisand were all known to have watched their show. They also had a personal audience with US Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and even Pope John Paul II.

Their act was seen by some 400,000 people each year, ultimately generating more than $1bn in ticket sales.  

The beginning of the end

What goes up must come down, and this was undoubtedly the case for Siegfried and Roy. Their downfall began on a routine night on October 3, 2003, during a performance of the show that they had spent 44 years perfecting.

Around 45 minutes into their show that evening, the action settled down for a moment called “The Rapport.” It was a part of the show intended to give the showmen and their audience a chance to gather their breath, but it turned out to be quite the opposite that night.

Roy introduced the audience to Mantecore, a 380-pound seven-year-old white tiger from Mexico. Although he had performed “The Rapport” more than 2,000 times before, the big cat became distracted by something in the crowd. When Roy tried to take control of the situation, Mantecore lashed out at the performer, ultimately sinking his teeth into his neck, slicing his vertebrae, and severing an artery to his brain.

He was left partially paralyzed on the left side of his body

Roy was rushed to the hospital and, despite surviving the ordeal, was never the same afterward. He was left partially paralyzed on the left side of his body after suffering a stroke and a subsequent cardiac arrest. Regardless, he always insisted that Mantecore never attacked him, but was actually trying to save him after realizing he was suffering a stroke on stage.

The investigation into the accident followed some bizarre twists and turns. Theories about why it all went wrong that night range from animal activists and homophobes in the crowd to ultrasonic devices and a woman near the stage who had a large beehive hairdo. There is still not a generally accepted theory for why the attack took place.

Arthur’s last efforts

The 2003 attack marked the end of Siegfried and Roy’s careers. It also pre-empted a significant rise in animal activism which made life a lot more difficult for those using big cats on stage. Even entertainment groups that had been using caged animals for more than a century, such as Ringling Brothers Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, ended up calling it quits.

Dirk Arthur, however, was not to be deterred. The Las Vegas magician had performed with big cats in showrooms since the 90s, beginning at Bally’s. He kept this going right up until 2018 when his “Dirk Arthur’s Wild Illusions” show last occurred at Westgate. Animal rights activists protested the show, and Westgate ended up axing it altogether.

Arthur had to keep his cats in a private zoo west of the Las Vegas Strip after this, costing him up to $150,000 per year to maintain. Ultimately, times got so hard that he last worked for the Westgate as an usher, according to LVRJ. Before his death, Arthur was supposedly in the process of buying a theatre in Branson, Missouri to reopen a show with his big cats.

The Westgate Las Vegas released a statement upon his death. It described Arthur as “a special talent,” and said he will “always be a cherished member of our Westgate family.” Meanwhile, animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for his cats to be sent to sanctuaries, with “freedom from stage lights and filthy cages at last.”

Roy Horn died in May 2020 from COVID-19 at 75, while Siegfried Fischbacher succumbed to Pancreatic cancer in 2021 at the age of 81.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *