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Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Damoo Dhotre: Notes on his career with Alfred Court

The following are notes taken from circus/zoo historian and wild animal trainer, Jim Clubb (my father). They are a response to questions asked of him by a descendent of the great Indian wild animal trainer Damoo Dhotre. From 1938 until 1952 Dhotre was in the employment of the legendary French wild animal trainer, Alfred Court. Court was a massive inspiration of my father's. You will note that Dhotre presented snow leopards, trained by Court. They were the first snow leopards ever trained. Bailey Fossett was the second person to train this species and my father was the third.

Damoo Gangaram Dhotre: Brief History from when he joined Alfred Court

1938: Damoo joined Alfred Court at the age of 36 to present Court’s new group of small cats (leopards, black panthers, jaguars, pumas and the only trained snow leopards in the world). He arrived in Paris and went to Liege in France to work at Circus De Jonghe. This was a small circus that took the act in its first season to break it in to the lighting, music and public.

1939: Blackpool Tower Circus, Great Britain. The act consisted of 15 mixed small cats (seven Indian and African leopards, two black panthers, two black jaguars, two pumas and two snow leopards). Damoo usually worked the matinees (afternoon performances) and Court worked in the evening. Because of the outbreak of war, Court left Blackpool half way through the season and went to Europe to organize the sale of some of his animals to other circuses and the transportation of two of his large mixed groups to go to Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus in the USA at the end of the 1939 season.

Court originally left to go to Berlin to organize a winter engagement for the mixed leopard act, but while he was there he was informed of the imminent outbreak of war. The Germans invaded Poland while he was in Berlin, so his plans changed overnight. While he was away Damoo presented the act, assisted by Wilson “Willy” Storie, Alfred Court’s nephew and business manager. After the first week of the season, the male snow leopard, Niet, died of pneumonia.

December 1939: The animals, accompanied by Damoo and one groom, left from Liverpool docks on the American ship, “The West Chatala”, heading for New York. The journey took two weeks and experienced bad weather conditions. They eventually arrived in the USA and were transported by rail to Sarasota, Florida, which was the Ringling Brothers' winter quarters. The other two mixed groups arrived at a similar time accompanied by Fritz Schultz, Joe Walch and Harry and May Kovar. Damoo wrote to the American historical magazine, Bandwagon, in 1967, listing all of Court’s animals that had been transported from war-torn Europe to Sarasota. They were:

Six Himalayan Black Bears
Six Polar Bears
Four Pumas
15 Lions
Six Tigers
16 Leopards
Six Black Panthers
Two Jaguars
Two Black Jaguars
One Snow Leopard
Two Spotted Great Dane Dogs

1940: At Ringling's winter quarters Damoo and Court trained five additional leopards as spares for the act. One of the leopards attacked Court, injuring him and also bit Damoo in the hand. The act opened with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Gardens. Alfred Court and Damoo were in the centre ring with the mixed group of panthers. During the dress rehearsal one of the leopards, Igloo, managed to get through the petition that separated him from the snow leopard, Dotchka, biting her in the neck and killing her. Damoo and Court tried to save her without success. The Igloo, when in the arena cage, attacked Court and clawed him in the face, resulting in Court nearly losing his right eye. Nevertheless, he carried on with the rehearsal! Igloo then climbed the cage and bit through the safety net above, escaping into the Madison Square Gardens auditorium. The leopard was eventually captured by the Court grooms.

1941-1942: Damoo presented the mixed group of small cats, flanked either side by Fritz Schultz and Joe Walsh with a mixed group of lions, tigers and bears, and Harry and May Kovar with a mixed group of lions, tigers, bears, black jaguars and Great Dane dogs.

1943: Alfred Court trained a new mixed group – his last. It consisted of nine tigers, five lions, two leopards, two pumas and a jaguar. However, the jaguar and pumas were omitted later on. The act was due to be presented by Damoo, but unfortunately one of the leopards took a dislike to him, so he was unable to present it. However, I do have pictures of him rehearsing the act in winter quarters. Damoo enlisted in the US army. The mixed small cat act was taken over by May Kovar who had quite a few accidents with this very dangerous group.

1944: May Kovar still presented this act, but in July 1944 Ringling’s suffered a terrible fire at Hertford, Connecticut and the circus had to return to its winter quarters.

1945: The leopard act was presented by Willy Storie, assisted by Vincent Dorr and Walter Flint. It also contained six girls who worked with the leopards. This act only worked for the 1945 season.

Winter 1945/46: Damoo returned from the army and took the original leopard act to a winter circus in Havana, Cuba. Storie, Dorr and Flint went with him. At that time the act consisted of the following animals:

Leopard "Sonia" Female
Leopard "Champion" Male
Leopard "Boopet" Female
Leopard "Taboo" Male
Leopard "Mincezu" Female
Leopard "Igloo" Male
Black Panther "Meckow" Female
Black Panther "Bangkok" Male
Black Jaguar "Zougou" Female
Black Jaguar "Negus" Male
Puma "Sudie" Female
Puma "Riton" Male

1946: Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus did not have a wild animal act for this season. They subcontracted the mixed small cat act with Damoo to Sparks Circus.

1947/48: Damoo, with his act, returned to Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey. The act worked in ring one. In ring two (centre ring) Roman Proske worked with his tigers and Ring three had Michael Konzelmann with Hagenbeck’s 14 polar bears.

1948: Damoo also doubled for Jonny Weissmuller in the feature film, “Jungle Jim”. For this filming he used his leopard Sonia for an attack sequence. The same footage was used again three years later in “Fury of the Congo”.

1949: Damoo was in ring one with the mixed small cats. Ring two (centre ring) featured Clausen bears and ring three had Mathies with Hagenbeck’s tigers.

1950/51: Alfred Court negotiated the sale of the act with Damoo to Circus Amar in France. It then consisted of five leopards, two black panthers, three pumas and two black jaguars.

1952: Damoo joined Circus Pinder in France. I am not sure if Amar sold the act to Pinder or what capacity Damoo worked at Amar. At the end of this year he returned to India.

Notes: It is worth reading the book “Circus Doctor” by J Y Henderson, as he mentions Damoo quite a lot. There is also a French book published about the transaction of the act when it was sold to Circus Amar. The above information was taken from various correspondence me (Jim Clubb) and friends of Alfred Court, including Willy Storie, and articles written by Alfred Court himself.

©Copyright J S Clubb 2009. Any reproduction or direct quotes from the above to be cleared through J S Clubb


Dr Mils Hills said...

Jamie, I don't suppose you'd be interested in collaborating on some kind of sociological / historical work on wild animal training?

I'm a social anthropologist by training (although the day job is rather different),and am very aware that hardly anything has been written about circus, etc., which isn't about the 'controversial' ethical side.

Which has been done to death.

I'm not aware that there's anything about the serious skill, trade, 'metier' of wild animal training past, present and future.

V best,


Jamie Clubb said...

There is little in this study. I have had discussions with academics who have wanted to pursue a similar line of investigation/exploration, but nothing has materialized of note. Obviously there are a handful of wonderful books that give a "warts 'n all" honest account of living with my people, Nell Stroud's "Josser" is an excellent example of this, but no serious study.

It sounds interesting and I am willing to help you in any way I can.


PS I agree the ethical side has gone round and round for too long now. After the objective study for 2007's Animal Welfare Bill the scientific committee came up with "it is a political matter". I would agree with this statement.

Wade G. Burck said...

I don't agree with either your statement of "warts n all" honest account or Dr. Hills statement of "controversial ethical side", no disrespect to either of you. I don't know if there have been any actual "warts n all" honest accounts written, and the majority of the "controversial ethical sides" have been penned exclusively in the last 10-15 years.
The subject as Dr. Hill's suggests, I suggest would be one of great, great interest. I also think given the "nature of the beast" as it were, the research need to complete such a document would be mind boggling, and at times overwhelming, given the intricacies of "our/your people," "our/your world," "this thing of ours/yours." Starting with "born in the life" or "joining the life" you will have two different paths/motivations to explore. The sooner you two folks get on it, the sooner the historically significant social documentation may be enjoyed, and learned from.
Wade Burck

Jamie Clubb said...

Hi Wade,

I felt that Nell Stroud's "Josser" was very "warts 'n all" and, in many ways, so was Paul Galico's 1960s novel "Love, Let Me Not Hunger". I guess it all depends on what particular warts you think are being covered over.

As for Mils' comment regarding the ethical side. I have read books that go back many decades that address the "animal issue". Dr. Marthe Kyle Worthington's scientific investigation that largely venerates animal circuses was published in 1989 and Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation" is as old as me. Before then even books supporting traditional circus that go back into the 1940s address the "animal issue". Even my grandfather and my great-uncle's respective autobiographies spend a lot of time on this.

I do believe the issue has been done to death and, whenever possible, I like to move on. My book "The Legend of Salt and Sauce" virtually avoided the issue completely. I was almost thrown on my recent radio interview on Radio Norfolk when my interviewer started a discussion on the topic. I was thrown because her argument was "pro" as opposed to "anti". Nevertheless, I made my point that the book leant little towards the debate from either side and it wasn't intended to do this. Some of my views on the ethics of traditional circus can be read in my article "Circus and Other 'Low' Arts" where I argue that most views directed towards circus culture stem from snobbery.

Mils said...

Quick comment, folks: I was referring to the academic (sociological / anthropological) literature, which mainly dwells on cruelty to animals; the domination of thinking beasts by people; spectacle / performance and suchlike.

I'm much more interested in academic studies which shed light on the skills / expertise of people (whether they be musicians in Ireland, people living in an ethnically diverse context like Mauritius, mechanics, police officers, civil servants, intelligence agents ...).

There aren't many studies like this per se, and specifically nothing recent about "wild animal training".

And that's surprising: given the pretty exotic and unusual nature of the occupation; the historical lineage ... etc.

I think there would be great merit in tackling the subject, but that's just my very personal opinion!


Jamie Clubb said...

I share your opinion and I think it would be a very worthwhile project. I am up my eyeballs at the moment, but it could join my number of "ongoing" work.


Anand Dhotre said...


Congrats for writing on my Great Grandfather International Circus Artist Late. DAMOO DHOTRE…

I am doing research on Damoo Dhotre's life and also on Circus Industry. My Dream is to open a Circus Museum in India. Nowadays, as all of us know that situation of Circus Industry in India is very delicate. So want do something great for Circus Industry so that Golden Days will be back for Circus Industry.I am in touch with your father Mr. Jim Clubb from which i got very good reply and response...

If anyone having any suggestion please feel to contact on Email

Anand Dhotre

Anand Dhotre said...


Congrats for writing on my Great Grandfather International Circus Artist Late. DAMOO DHOTRE…

I am doing research on Damoo Dhotre's life and also on Circus Industry. My Dream is to open a Circus Museum in India. Nowadays, as all of us know that situation of Circus Industry in India is very delicate. So want do something great for Circus Industry so that Golden Days will be back for Circus Industry.I am in touch with your father Mr. Jim Clubb from which i got very good reply and response...

If anyone having any suggestion please feel to contact on Email

Anand Dhotre

Mils said...


Thanks for your positive response. I'm spinning a few plates currently (2 daughters, work, working out and learning Jado Kuin Do) ... but I'd be pleased to sketch out a potential structure for the project.

I'm a quick writer and an enthusiastic collaborator, so don't fear any of that endless academic argument over phrasing ...!

I've got some interesting searches from bibliographic databases already.

V best,


Jamie Clubb said...


Great to have you on board! Good luck with your dream. I think it would be a great project and worth fighting for.


Funny you should mention spinning plates (always a good metaphor for me!) I just sketched out what takes up my allocated 24 just now. An insight into Jamie Clubb's schedule for 2009: Bring up daughter, build house, continue to promote Salt and Sauce, chase up second book with publishers, continue to promote and grow CCMA, research and finish third book and keep happy family life!