Circus legend, the animal tamer Irina Bugrimova (1911-2001) would have celebrated her 100th birthday on March 13. Her co-workers and friends called her the queen of the kings.
Irina Bugrimova (1911-2001) was not only Russia's first female lion tamer, but one of the greatest and most innovative in the history of this circus act. In her 35 year long career, she trained over 70 tigers and ligers, won many awards and in her later years, became a leader for Russia's society for the protection of animals. Bugrimova was attacked by her lions on many occasions and took many trips to the hospital. Despite such recurrent setbacks, she always returned to the work that she loved. As she said herself, shortly before her death at age 91: They just couldn't find another lass like me.
Irina Nikolajevna Bugrimova was born in Kharkov. Her father was a veterinarian and her mother was a ballet dancer. As a youth she excelled in sports and at 17 become a Russian speed skating champion. She was also trained in ballet, horseback riding and motorcycle riding. In her later teens she joined the Kharkov circus to learn the trapeze. Now, running away with the circus did not hold the same connotations in the Soviet Union as it did in western nations. Circus performers were regarded with similar esteem as performers from the ballet and opera. In some ways, it was a noble profession.
In 1929, Bugrimova transferred to the Moscow Circus and worked mostly as an acrobat and motorcycle rider. Her first circus act performed together with her husband Alexander Buslaev, also a sportsman and a performer became popular and was shown up to 1937.
She also worked intermittently as a stunt woman for film. There she met two of the greatest animal trainers in the country, Nikolaj Gladilstchikow and Boris Eder. It was at this time that her passion for working with big animals was awoken. After extensive training, she made her debut as a lion tamer in 1939.
Bugrimova is famous for many of the innovative and creative acts she developed during her time as a performer. Spectators around the world admired the famous lion tamer. Her animal acts were more than just a series of tricks. Each show was a small performance. The tamer who was also a daredevil would ride a motorcycle up a vertical wall with a lion on her back. Irina and her lions would soar to the heights of the big top on swings. The lions would walk tightropes and take meat from her mouth. Bugrimova managed to combine all the tricks into the whole performance with a defined role for each animal with up to 11 lions on the cirque at the same time. In the finale, the animals would lie on the floor next to each other and their tamer would lie on top of them as a queen.
Bugrimova is said to have never hit any of her animals and was often heard saying that in order to tame lions, one must become a lion. She would get injured many times, but after every hospital visit, every operation, she would be back in the cage. Her favourite animal was a male named Caesar, with whom she worked for 23 years. Caesar was not indifferent to his mistress either, once rescuing her when another lion became aggressive
Irina Bugrimova worked in the circus for 45 years. She was welcomed all over the Soviet Union and abroad. Bugrimova became one of the first circus performers decorated in her home country as a "Hero of Socialist Labour" and "For Services to the Fatherland".
Irina Bugrimova left the circus in 1971 after a performance in Lvov where she stumbled and her lion Neron injured Irina's leg. After the end of the circus career she was involved in public work, became a leader of Russia's society for the protection of animals and was in charge of Soviet circus veterans board. Bugrimova also wrote two books about the circus, and led the examination committee of the Moscow Circus School. Irina Bugrimova died of heart attack on February 20, 2001 and was buried in Moscow
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