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Woman Who Was A Pioneer Tiger Trainer Focus Of Documentary by Santa Barbara County Filmmaker

She was woman who was a pioneer in what was considered a man’s job. For more than half a century, Mabel Stark was a tiger trainer. This remarkable woman who was mauled multiple times during her career, but loved her big cats is the focus of a just released documentary by a Montecito filmmaker called “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer.”

It’s the result of about three years of work by Leslie Zemeckis.

Zemekis says Stark’s early life was difficult. She was born in 1889, and was one of seven children who became orphaned when their parents died. She became a dancer with a circus, and in the early 1910’s got a closeup look at tigers with a Venice, California based circus company.

Stark was initially told she wouldn’t be allowed to do it, because of the danger, but eventually started doing it, and became a sensation with audiences. Zemekis says Stark was mauled numerous times, but that didn’t stop her.

Stark became famous for her work with the big cats, and in the 1930’s and 40’s worked on a number of circus themed movies. Her work with the cats brought her to what was known as Jungleland, an almost forgotten theme park in Ventura County which was a big deal in Southern California before Disneyland opened.

In 1968, Jungleland’s new owner fired Stark, and the 78 year old woman tragically died a few months later, but ironically, not as a result of a big cat. This month marks the 50th anniversary of her death in Thousand Oaks. The Montecito filmmaker says she wanted to do the documentary about the now almost forgotten trainer because she was fascinated by the story of a woman who not only succeeded, but thrived in what was a male dominated field.

She combined old photos, plus film and TV clips for the documentary, which is narrated by Academy Award winning actress Melissa Leo. Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer is available starting this week on Amazon and Vimeo.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.