Review: ‘Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer’ tells the story of a female tiger trainer’s 60-year career

by
Mabel Stark

Photo: Courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio

Sometimes they can be sweet, at others it can be of the contrary. Many give the cliche advice of expecting the unexpected, but the question of how to navigate the unexpected still leaves many of us inquisitive. While there is no right or wrong answer, our autonomous nature always finds a route for us to traverse through the journey. Along the way, sometimes the need to reinvent yourself becomes vital; at least it did for Mabel Stark.

The documentary, ‘Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer’ was written, produced, and directed by Leslie Zemeckis. As the beginning of her life started out in such a detrimental way, it soon ameliorated most peculiarly, making the story of Stark one of the most remarkable.

Coming from an impoverished background, Stark (born Mary Haynie), was born to sharecroppers in a small rural Kentucky town in 1889. One of seven children, Stark, and her siblings were aware of their adversities from a young age. Growing tired of her tumultuous childhood full of deceit, abandonment, and grief, she left for nursing school at 17.



While the nursing school didn’t fuel her fire, eventually, she became an exotic dancer in a carnival. One night while visiting the circus, Stark decided to give the tiger cage a visit. There, she became captivatingly swooned with the creatures inside of it. It was in this moment that she had an epiphany and realized her true destiny.


Mabel Stark had a spirit as ferocious as her tigers.


Although the surname Stark may not have been a fit to Mabel’s brand, she had a fiery passion for what she did. Initially working as an apprentice, her steadfastness and efficiency were in place from day one.

“I will get to the top even if I have to sell my soul”, she exclaims in an old audio interview the film plays.

While tiger taming was a transient part of the lifestyle of her peers, it was what made her whole. Uniquely dauntless and a bit audacious, she took something that was seen as a taboo for women and proved the world wrong.

“I like to do something that no other person can do… they said a woman didn’t have the brains enough to do that, and they dared me, so here I am.”

Over the course of her career, she was married several times to some of the best trainers; ultimately helping her level up in her trade. On several accounts, she had been mauled by lions while performing. Despite these painful experiences, her invincible attitude and unconquerable spirit never stopped her from getting back to work. Mabel was her own woman.


With great tact and dignity, Stark proved herself and withstood a 60-year career in tiger training and taming.


Zemeckis uses a great anecdotal reference to give insight into Mabel’s essence and deciphering the nebulous aspects of her life. Appearances from her family members, former employees, comrades, as well as other female animal trainers such as Trudy Strong and Janette Williams, play a considerable contribution to the film.

Like previously stated, experiencing bouts of wanting to reinvent or revamp our existence can become crucial sometimes. We may try an abundance of different things to catalyze the nuance we’re seeking. For Stark, becoming one of the world’s first female tiger trainers was precisely that.


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