Thursday, December 11, 2014

Damoo Dhotre

Disclaimer: Wagon Tracks does not support the use of wild animals in any form of circus performance and entries here regarding animal performances are meant for their historical value and not to condone their use for entertainment purposes.

Born in Puna, India in 1902, Damodar Gangaram "Damoo" Dotre was one of the most famous and reportedly fearless cat trainers of the golden age of the circus. Joining his uncle Tukaram Ganpat Shelar's "Royal Circus" around the age of ten, working a number of jobs including as an acrobat and a clown. He discovered his true calling, however, after being apprenticed to the circus's cat trainer (which a somewhat apocryphal story from circus magazine Back Yard attributes to an experience sneaking into the cage at his uncle's circus one morning to play with a lioness whom he'd supposedly befriended).

Damoo was considered a veteran trainer by the age of 17, known for his fearlessness, a quality which lead to many near misses and narrow escapes in the ring, all of which Dhotre invariably attributed to his own failings as a trainer and a performer. Poorly educated, but a voracious reader and researcher, Dhotre relied on his extensive knowledge of animal psychology both to develop his training regimen and for his own safety while with the big cats, using each cat's known background and patterns of behavior to predict how they might behave. Often, Dhotre compared cats to children but freely admitted that while a cat may be trained, it could never be tamed and would always remain a wild animal and a possible danger to its handler.

Dhotre was additionally known for his stage persona and costume, appearing bare chested, turbaned and, unlike many trainers, wielding only a pair of bamboo sticks, on which the cats could chew if they felt the urge to bite something, and a whip used for signaling (never for beating an animal). Early in his career in one of his many scrapes, Dhotre had gone into the cage wearing more formal attire and nearly been mauled by one of his cats when it attempted to snare his jacket with its claws and pull him in, teaching him a valuable lesson about proper wardrobe (as well as animal behavior).

In 1933, Dhotre joined Izako's Russian Circus through which he met renowned animal trainer Alfred Court with whom he would go on to work as part of Ringling Brother's Barnum and Bailey in 1940 for whom he worked until being drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. There, he and his cats staged benefit performances to help the war effort. On his return, Dhotre rejoined Ringling Bros., performing with the circus as well as working as an animal trainer and stunt double in the film industry until 1950 when he briefly returned to Europe before going back to India where he retired, largely due to poor health in 1953. He died in 1973, just days after publishing his autobiography, Wild Animal Man.