Chris Lawrence was onstage when a white tiger viciously attacked Roy Horn in 2003 during their Las Vegas show. Now, after a 15-year battle with PTSD, Lawrence is finally ready to discuss the human error that triggered the incident and the story he believes was concocted to protect the legendary illusionists
Up close, deadly close, a tiger's scent is "piss and pheromones," says Chris Lawrence. While it's a uniquely pungent thing, it can smell a bit like burnt buttered popcorn, or maybe a whiff of a truck's muffler. You never forget it.
When Mantacore — a 400-pound, 7-foot-long striped white male tiger — bit and held Roy Horn in his mouth during a performance at Las Vegas' Mirage hotel 15 years ago, animal handler Lawrence was there, grabbing the tiger, desperately attempting to pull the cat back by the furry nape of his neck. A moment earlier, Lawrence, whose responsibilities included the daily care of Mantacore, had found himself on his back, expecting an imminent demise.
Soon, as Horn's decades-long partner, Siegfried Fischbacher, cried out and the evening's audience of 1,500 people watched agape, Mantacore dragged Horn's unconscious body offstage through the ball-fringe curtains.
The events that unfolded that night — Oct. 3, 2003, Horn's 59th birthday — are now part of the pop culture firmament: Horn suffered an onstage stroke, the story goes, and Mantacore lunged at him in a misguided instinct to help. After the incident, the show — a Vegas mainstay that grossed $45 million a year — shuttered permanently. Mantacore, deemed blameless, was reintegrated among the rest of the duo's big-cat menagerie. (The tiger, often misspelled as "Montecore" in the press, died in 2014 at age 17.) Fischbacher, now 79, went on to extravagantly care for his lifelong friend and former lover Horn, 74, at their Little Bavaria estate in Vegas, whose sprawling, rustic grounds are outfitted with hip-high rails along winding paths to make it easier for Horn to get around. Today, he's able to stroll short distances when not confined to a scooter and can talk only with difficulty.
Yet Lawrence — a figure central to the story, now speaking for the first time — says the official narrative of the night put out by the show isn't what really happened. He contends it was a version shaped by the illusionists to protect the brand, save face and cover up for a series of onstage handling errors made by Horn. "While Roy, unfortunately, bears the physical scars of the attack," says Lawrence, "he definitely isn't the only person that was left suffering in the aftermath of it."
THR reviewed the inconclusive probe into the incident, a two-year investigation directed by the United States Department of Agriculture and made public in 2005. (The agency has authority over exotic animals.) It lends support to Lawrence's position by independently establishing a narrative that hews to his own, not the previously publicized story. Horn and Fischbacher did not respond to requests for comment.
"Their story was met at the time [among in-the-know locals] with considerable, shall we say, skepticism," says Norm Clarke, the longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist of Strip goings-on. "But it was understood that the last thing they wanted to do was demonize their animals since they were seen as members of their family."
Lawrence, 45, says he sympathizes with the pair and believes they promulgated their storyline because the reality undermined a lifetime of image-building: that the self-styled "masters of the impossible" were capable of awe-inspiring interspecies bonds and that their wild beasts could be tamed into reliably docile creatures. (In a stand-up routine that aired on HBO six months after the attack, Chris Rock mocked the notion that big cats could ever be domesticated, declaring, "That tiger went tiger!")
Horn, who led the duo's animal efforts, while Fischbacher headed up the illusions, had long projected a mythos around his own animal handling, describing a nearly supernatural bond cultivated through direct observation, conversation, even meditation. In a book published in 2000 and sold at Mirage gift shops, he boasts that he sustained a litany of serious injuries performing illusions over the previous three decades but never in his personal encounters with his animals. "I don't have any battle scars," he crowed. "They lick me raw."
Lawrence is speaking out now for several reasons. For one, he's anxious about the factual accuracy of a biopic the pair have announced, which will reportedly deal with the attack. For another, he long has been frustrated that the USDA neglected to secure his testimony during its investigation. (He believes show officials purposefully sought to keep distance between the external inquiry and those in possession of contradictory information.) Most important, though, he's struggled as a result of that night, eventually having to quit his seasoned career in animal handling and receiving a diagnosis of PTSD after a years-long odyssey of alcoholic benders, night terrors and suicidal thoughts. As he continues the methodical work of recovery, he believes going public is a benefit to himself, his family and other trauma victims.
"Our three kids almost lost their father," Lawrence explains, his voice quavering, in his suburban Orlando home on a recent afternoon. "Really, in a lot of respects, we did lose him," says his wife, Alicia, sitting across the kitchen table from him. "This changed him. It was like a little piece of him died that day."
The Lawrence household remains — despite everything — steeped in the world of Siegfried & Roy, from the lion painting on the wall to the big-cat throw blanket on the sofa. Even as Lawrence battled dark dreams involving his former bosses, he'd enjoy DVDs of Father of the Pride (NBC's primetime animated sitcom about the show's white lions, which aired from 2004 to 2005) with his kids and gamely handle show-and-tell about his former profession at their schools. "I always won the my-dad's-cooler-than-your-dad contest," says eldest daughter Alexis, now a 20-year-old nursing student. "It's like, 'Yours is a firefighter? Well, mine trained tigers.' I mean, mic drop."
In the past decade and a half, the conversation around animal entertainment has shifted — Ringling Bros. closed, SeaWorld is phasing out its theatrical killer whale shows. And a dramatic, flashbulb moment like Mantacore's attack on Horn would now be captured by the audience and immediately shared online.
But while the world long ago moved on, no longer entranced or appalled or amused by the Siegfried & Roy spectacle gone wrong, Lawrence can't. "It's been 15 years, but I live it every day and every night," he says. "It'll never leave me."
Though Vegas' marquee attractions no longer are glitzy magic and animal spectacles, but rather Cirque du Soleil shows and A-list pop star and DJ residencies, for decades the German immigrants defined the city's ethos. Clarke ranks the pair's significance as Vegas beacons in the same league as Elvis Presley and Celine Dion. Their show, one of the top-grossing acts on the Strip, was featured on The Tonight Show and regularly drew such A-list guests as Frank Sinatra, Bill Clinton, Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. A campy fantasia of kinetic light work, massive set pieces, over-the-top costumes, synchronized dancers and, yes, giant cats doing stunts, it helped transform Vegas into a family-friendly destination.
Today, the Siegfried & Roy brand's remaining link to the public is its Secret Garden complex, a small zoo on the grounds of the Mirage that opened in 1997 while the show was in its prime. Visitors can still see lions, tigers and leopards lazily sunning themselves. Lawrence worked long hours at the facility when not on performance duty. VIPs were often brought around back for visits; he remembers Demi Moore's perfume causing Mantacore's brother Jahan to become "extremely excited" — "he scratched me up pretty good trying to get away to roughhouse with her." He recalls that Michael Jackson — who wrote, recorded and sang the show's theme song — was such a frequent, dawdling guest that the handlers would roll their eyes when he'd return yet again. Alicia, then working in boxing promotions, remembers often phoning her husband at the Secret Garden when they were still dating and how their conversations would require pauses while Manchu, an adult male snow leopard that Lawrence cared for, chuffed in affection in the background. "We have a lot of fond memories of the time before," she says.
Lawrence had worked his way up at the Siegfried & Roy show — which he cold-called when he moved to town in 1995 — through long hours of scrubbing kennels, learning critical illusion setups and bonding with the cats. It was an all-in job, both physically (he racked up three shoulder surgeries and two micro-fractured vertebrae) and in terms of around-the-clock hours. He recalls being urged by a colleague to leave the labor room while his wife gave birth to one of his daughters.
By Lawrence's account, in the several years before the incident, Horn had spent less and less time in close contact with the cats before shows. What had been a constant routine — hand-feeding meat treats through kennel wire and, crucially, talking to them as he made his rounds — became sporadic. "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."
The segment of the show that went haywire was called "The Rapport," which as its name implies was meant to demonstrate the exceptional bond between Horn and his cats. "Can you say hello to everyone?" Horn would vamp in front of the audience to whichever tiger was featured that evening. Then he'd say: "Let's dance!" The animal would rise up with his paws on Horn's shoulders in a moment of orchestrated intimacy.
For his 59th birthday performance that night, Horn had considered using a new cub, which he thought might be cute. But given that the evening's audience was filled with Horn's friends, Lawrence persuaded him to employ Mantacore, considered one of the most impressive cats because of his size and experience. "This moment haunts me to my core and plagues me with overwhelming guilt," says Lawrence. "I actually talked Roy into using the tiger that would ultimately maul him and end the most successful stage show in the history of Las Vegas."
"The Rapport" had another function — as a breather for the nearly 100-person crew in the midst of the otherwise chaotic show, requiring just a couple of spotlight operators and a soundboard technician. Lawrence, who'd helped execute the segment hundreds of times in the preceding seven years, was, as usual, watching his charge Mantacore from the wings.
Things started going awry almost from the start. Soon after he was brought onstage by Horn, Mantacore wandered far off his mark. While other cats had occasionally deviated from their routines, "Mantacore was automatic during 'The Rapport,'" says Lawrence. "This was uncharted waters." In reaction, Horn asked the tiger over the microphone, "What is wrong?"
Lawrence considered a quick intervention but was reluctant because it was Horn's birthday performance, and in the past he and his colleagues had been rebuked for stepping in — which, after all, broke the illusion. "They didn't like making mistakes and never owned them in front of an audience," he says of his bosses. "I had been yelled at by Siegfried on a few occasions. His favorite 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 onstage." Lawrence explains that Horn in particular hated it when handlers were seen. "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."
At this point, by Lawrence's recollection, Horn made a crucial error — one thus far omitted from the post-tragedy narrative. "What Roy did was, instead of walking Mantacore in a circle, as is usually done, he just used his arm to steer him right back into his body, in a pirouette motion," he says. "Mantacore's face was right in [Horn's] midsection. By Roy not following the correct procedure, it fed into confusion and rebellion."
Mantacore's ears went noticeably erect. His whiskers became outstretched from his cheeks, and the pupils of his eyes grew large, with a green haze.
Perhaps not knowing what else to do, Horn put the microphone up to Mantacore's mouth and asked him if he wanted to say "Hello" to the audience. Instead, the cat snapped and took Horn's shirtsleeve in his mouth, the performer backing away, saying "No" repeatedly and tapping the cat on the nose with the microphone until Mantacore finally let go.
Lawrence headed toward the stage, taking care not to rush. "I walked," he says. "I wouldn't even say briskly. I never ran after the cats. That could elicit an additional response."
Mantacore sat, fixed on Horn. Lawrence squatted behind the cat, speaking to him while patting his hindquarters and attempting to divert his focus by emptying the entire pound of 1-inch cubed cut steak out of the treat pocket in his pants onto the stage. No luck.
Out of positive-reinforcement options, Lawrence decided to grab Mantacore's leash, which was only about 10 inches long and hung to the side of his collar. At that point Horn backed up. The retreat inspired Mantacore to leap at him, swinging at his legs and knocking the illusionist to the stage floor. The cat also pulled Lawrence, who tumbled first onto Mantacore's back, then rolled off onto the ground beside him. "I vividly remember thinking, 'Here he comes,' and I experienced all of the things that you hear about prior to your death," says Lawrence. "It was very deceiving because it could've only lasted a few seconds but it seemed like an eternity. I remember experiencing a crippling guilt over the thought that I was going to be leaving my children without a father and cause them unimaginable pain that they were too young to understand."
Mantacore, though, had no interest in Lawrence. He was zeroed in on Horn. The cat climbed onto Horn's upper body and bit the right side of his neck. Lawrence got up, attempting to hold the tiger back by his neck, to no avail. Soon Mantacore was up on all fours, with Horn in his mouth. Lawrence lost his grip and found himself trailing behind the tiger and his boss' motionless body as the cat dragged him offstage. Lawrence yelled for someone to discharge a fire extinguisher, thinking the loud distraction would break Mantacore's focus and that he might release Horn from his grip.
Backstage, Lawrence caught up with the cat and grabbed him by his tail, while his handling supervisor straddled Mantacore and jammed both of his index fingers into his mouth. This "fish-hooking" maneuver — a conditioning method used on the cats beginning when they're young — forced Mantacore to bite himself, delivering a jolt of pain, and forced his release of Horn, who was quickly taken away by stagehands.
The cat, with his target no longer in view, calmed down almost immediately, returning to his kennel for a routine dinner. "Once the incident was over," Lawrence says, "Mantacore went right back to his normal self." Horn was taken to a local hospital for what would be extensive surgical treatment.
The USDA probe into the episode affords a Rashomon-like view, with dozens of conflicting accounts from staffers and audience members. Various faultfinding theories were investigated. Perhaps a spectator with a beehive hairdo distracted Mantacore? (Then-Mirage owner Steve Wynn's publicly floated notion.) Maybe a laser-pen light had been shined in the cat's eyes? Or a terrorist had mounted an attack on high-profile gay targets? All were dismissed. (The Mirage security staff's own limited incident summary, included in the USDA's report, broadly corresponds to Lawrence's much more specific narrative of events.)
Missing from the final report, though, is Lawrence's statement. He claims he provided one to his superiors, but it was never passed along to the USDA. Lawrence says he and his fellow handlers were kept separated from the government's inquiry. Only their supervisor's own testimonial was ultimately provided.
"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," he explains.
Lawrence contends he also separately heard from a show official, inquiring if he'd been drinking earlier in the day of the attack. He vehemently denied it and grew concerned he would be scapegoated. "That cut me to my core," he says, "especially knowing what I laid on the line that night in my attempts to save Roy's life."
The agency's documentation separately shows through reprinted correspondence that Horn's lawyer and the show's producer, Feld Entertainment — which also long owned Ringling Bros. — were resistant to efforts to share the Mirage's video footage of the incident. (The casino complied in the end.)
Within days of the attack, Horn underwent more rounds of brain surgery — he'd suffered two gaping puncture wounds in his neck, causing massive blood loss and leading to a stroke, with few expecting him to survive. Meanwhile, everyone involved in the Mirage spectacle — upward of 150 people, including dancers and acrobats, stagehands and administrators — was informed it would be dismantled. The show was over. The government, which was exploring potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act, ultimately didn't assign blame for the attack. But the following year the USDA amended its safety regulations for the live exhibition of big cats to stipulate distances and barriers between animals and the viewing public.
Several months after the incident, a still-recovering Horn summoned Lawrence to a one-on-one breakfast at the Jungle Palace, a lavish Moorish-inspired compound off the Strip that served as the primary dwelling of the duo at the time. (Many of their animals were raised there, and Lawrence used to visit the property daily to help train the show's tiger cubs, including Mantacore.)
Lawrence had expected a fact-finding interrogation over what happened. Instead, there was only small talk with his boss, who'd been brought out in his wheelchair by a housekeeper and parked at the head of the table. (She remained on hand, serving as an interpreter, repeating his slurred, heavily German-accented speech.) "The one thing that I remember vividly was that Roy's right leg bounced up and down during our entire visit," he says. "I spoke to my mom about this, as she was a former rehabilitation nurse who specialized in head injuries, and she said that that movement is common for someone with his degree of injuries when they are nervous. I've noticed that I do a similar thing now, suffering from PTSD, when my anxiety rises."
Lawrence asserts that what he believes to be a "romanticized" cover story — that Horn had a stroke onstage and Mantacore tragically attempted to save him, when in truth Horn stroked out as a result of the attack — was conjured of public-relations necessity but also of understandable mercy toward Horn, whose own actions led to personal tragedy. "I can guarantee they haven't shown him that video, they haven't tried to reality-check it," reasons Lawrence of Horn's professional circle. "It would've had to be a private moment with Siegfried, if Roy had asked. Nobody else would've approached him with the hard truth."
Lawrence quit his employment at the Secret Garden three years after the incident, wracked with guilt over Horn's disabling injuries and an increasing discomfort around the animals he'd dedicated his life to nurturing. But once he left, without the rhythm of his regimented working life and the colleagues who shared his grief and took seriously the gravity of a Las Vegas tiger attack, things got much worse. (THR reached out to several of his colleagues, who declined to participate.)
Lawrence, Alicia and their three kids moved to Kansas, where he'd grown up with a poster of his idol, celebrated animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, above his bed. He fixed up classic Corvettes for money, drank to excess and experienced paranoid visions — once causing him to flee through a wheat field — in which his irrational mind convinced him that Horn and Fischbacher had ordered his killing.
Five years ago he was diagnosed with PTSD.
Fit yet fragile, jumpy while downbeat, he can no longer tolerate the scent of raw meat, which he used to feed the tigers. He avoids nature documentaries that showcase big game. He can't pet his family's 5-year-old black poodle mix, Roxy, who nonetheless perpetually attempts to nuzzle him. "People can't see this injury," he says. "By all accounts, I look OK."
While he is now in improved circumstances under the care of a specialist — sober, he watches over the kids while Alicia works as a local real estate agent, and, when he's feeling especially distressed, exercises up to 23 miles per day on the stationary bike in his living room — he continues to endure night terrors. "They always end with me getting my throat ripped out, similar to Roy's neck being bitten, but amplified," he explains. "Most often it's by a tiger, but it has also been by an attacker with a knife. I wake up and feel the actual pain and cannot breathe."
Alicia is frank about how "PTSD can give a spouse PTSD" — the reverberating, unrecognized ordeal of it all, from Lawrence's suicidal tendencies to prescription side-effect hallucinations: "He'd tell me the streets are turning into Legos; I told the kids, 'You cannot tell people what's happening here.'"
Recently, Lawrence dreamed he'd shown up for work at the Jungle Palace. When he was almost at the door, he witnessed his son fall from the balcony. "I attribute my children being involved so much," Lawrence reasons, "because they were my last and most intense thought during my death experience onstage the night of the attack."
A decade ago, Siegfried & Roy made one final Las Vegas appearance, later televised as part of a 20/20 special, for a charity event benefiting brain science. They performed an illusion in which Horn removed a curtain from a cage to reveal that a white tiger had replaced Fischbacher. Their manager informed the press that the animal was Mantacore, adding a pleasing closure to the pair's last hurrah.
But Lawrence says it was clear to him by sight (and confirmed to him separately by a former colleague) that the tiger was another, more seasoned cat named Jaipur. "What you see isn't really what is happening," he says. "I'll leave that there because I can't go into any details about the illusions. We all had to sign an NDA. I am completely understanding of that and committed to it."
For Siegfried & Roy, there is reality and then there is truth. They have always been transparent about this, fond of quoting the author Robert Fulghum's dictum: "Dreams are more persuasive than facts." They fulfilled the promise of their magic: to make your mind play tricks on itself. Perhaps, in the end, they played that trick on themselves.
This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.