Almost 16 years after a white tiger nearly mauled illusionist Roy Horn to death, animal handler Chris Lawrence is breaking his silence on the incident, alleging a lengthy cover-up orchestrated to preserve the reputation of the longtime Vegas performance duo, Siegfried & Roy.
On October 3, 2003, a 400-lb white tiger named Mantacore bit and held Horn in his mouth, causing massive blood loss leading to a stroke for the performer. Lawrence, who was employed by Horn and partner Siegfried Fischbacher as an animal handler and trainer, was onstage during the attack. Now, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Lawrence says the details released to the public have been falsified in order to maintain Horn’s billing as someone who has a “supernatural” connection to the wild animals.
“While Roy, unfortunately, bears the physical scars of the attack he definitely isn’t the only person that was left suffering in the aftermath of it,” Lawrence says, who suffers from PTSD as a result of that fateful night.
Lawrence, who worked for the duo from 1995 to 2006, asserts Horn became less involved with the big cats over time and it was his diminished presence and mistakes that led to the attack.
“Many of the handlers thought that Roy was treating the cats more like props than he was respecting them for who they were,” Lawrence explains. “That can only work as long as there are no variables, which is impossible considering that you’re dealing with a living, thinking animal. I am positive that Roy’s diminishing relationship with Mantacore was a key factor in the attack.”
By Lawrence’s account, the performance during Horn’s 59th birthday celebration began with the tiger missing his mark. Lawrence says he and other handlers had previously been reprimanded for stepping in to control animals.
“They didn’t like making mistakes and never owned them in front of an audience,” he recalls. “I had been yelled at by Siegfried on a few occasions. His favourite phrase was, ‘Are you trying to ruin me?’ He would later apologize and explain that, because he and Roy were on the marquee, they couldn’t make mistakes on stage.”
Despite employing several animal handlers who handled the training and care of the big cats, Horn, in particular, was adamant about keeping the illusion that he himself did all the training.
“They went to a great length to hide the fact that we actually existed to preserve the perception that Roy ‘trained’ all of the animals himself,” he tells THR.
The long-held narrative of the attack put forth by the duo is that Horn suffered a stroke on stage and Mantacore made a misguided attempt to “save” his friend. Not true, says Lawrence, who points to handling mistakes by the illusionist.
At this juncture, Lawrence walked on stage.
“I wouldn’t even say briskly. I never ran after the cats. That could elicit an additional response,” he remembers. Horn tried to placate the tiger with cubes of meat as Lawrence grabbed the chain around the cat’s neck.
It was then that Horn made the fatal mistake of backing away from Mantacore, who then stood up on his hind legs and lunged at the performer, knocking Lawrence to the ground. The tiger then dragged an unconscious Horn off stage, pulling Lawrence behind as he yelled for someone to discharge a fire extinguisher to distract the animal. Lawrence and another handler grabbed the tiger by the tail and jabbed two fingers in the cat’s mouth, causing him to bite himself and let go of Horn.
Once he let go of Horn, Mantacore walked to his cage and went “right back to his normal self.”
Lawrence’s version of events has been backed up by others, including local Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Norm Clarke.
After the attack, Lawrence and others who were present backstage were told to keep quiet.
“Siegfried & Roy’s attorneys told us not to talk to any of them, or anyone for that matter, and that they would be releasing a joint statement to the USDA on our behalf,” Lawrence says, adding that his statement was never used in the investigation into the incident.
Siegfried & Roy have made no comment about the allegations. Mantacore returned to Siegfried & Roy’s Las Vegas home and died at age 17 in 2014.