This essay is concerned with the history of wild animal training between the early nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, specifically with circus acts involving ‘big cats’. The author, John Stokes, is sympathetic to the view that such performances are inhumane, degrading to animal and human alike, but rather than simply rehearsing familiar attitudes, he subjects the ‘big cat’ act to a performance analysis based on established criteria, in the belief that, if performance theory is to have the widespread application that its advocates claim, then it should be able to elucidate many different kinds of theatrical event. His primary materials are the myriad biographies and autobiographies of wild animal trainers that were produced during the heyday of their art, and which he finds to be frequently characterized by an unexpected thoughtfulness and breadth of experience, besides being highly informative about performance aesthetics. John Stokes is Professor of Modern British Literature in the Department of English, King's College London. He is a regular theatre reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and co-author, together with Michael R. Booth and Susan Bassnett, of Bernhardt, Terry, Duse: the Actress in Her Time (Cambridge, 1988) and Three Tragic Actresses (Cambridge, 1996).