Hauteville-sur-Fier is a little Alpine village not far from France's border with Switzerland. It was in this unlikely environment that LA's best-known lion trainer was born and raised.
As a young boy, Charles Gay was fascinated with lions and lion taming. He attained the rank of sergeant in the French army before leaving his homeland for England, learning lion taming from English showmen.
Charles learned the English language as well, and soon met journalist Muriel Crowe. When they married, Charles adopted Muriel's son Kenneth, and Muriel joined Charles' lion taming act.
The Cole Brothers circus troupe brought the Gays to Los Angeles in 1914. Charles also appeared in a couple of adventure movies (both featuring lions).
Adventure movies were quite popular, which meant demand for big cats. The Gays decided to focus on raising and training lions for films, opening Gay's Lion Farm in 1920 with three lions.
Although a lion farm in Los Angeles is unthinkable now, it had company: the Gays bought a plot of land close to an ostrich farm, an alligator farm, and a zoo.
The lion farm was popular from its inception: El Monte High School, founded in 1901, renamed its sports teams the Lions (and Charles gave the school a live lion mascot, believe it or not).
In 1923, the Gays brought forty lions to the California Industries Exposition in San Francisco, an event covered by the San Pedro Daily News. In part:
Mrs. Gay assists her husband in the work and declares she is particularly interested in the welfare of "the babies".
"These animals", Gay declared as he caressed the head of a giant lion, "are just as responsive to kind treatment as any other animal. They are just as affectionate and trusting as dogs when treated right."
Gay said he wants to show people that cruelty and weapons are not essential in training wild animals, that kindness wins.
A newspaper account from 1925 states that Charles also used a radio to calm the big cats when they were nervous or disagreeable. (Perhaps that old chestnut about music soothing the savage beast has some truth to it. One of my cats, who passed away last year, LOVED heavy metal.)
One of Charles' best-known lions was Numa. Named for a lion in the Tarzan books, Numa appeared in Charlie Chaplin's classic "The Circus" and earned about $10,000 a year.
The Coronado Eagle and Journal published an interesting tale from the set of "The Circus". Charles had warned the cast and crew not to get too close to Numa. Chaplin thought he was exaggerating, and entered Numa's enclosure.
Numa took a look at his co-star and licked his chops.
Chaplin promptly fell to the ground, having read that playing dead is the thing to do when confronted with a wild animal.
Numa placed one of his huge paws on Chaplin's stomach. He may have been looking to play with the bemused star (having just eaten, it's unlikely he was hungry). In any case, Charles Gay arrived, with a lioness in tow, drawing Numa's attention away from Chaplin.
(Note: the newspaper stated that Numa had just eaten an entire side of beef, hide and all. This seems unlikely, since a side of beef weighs 200-300 pounds. Adult male lions can eat up to 90 pounds of meat in one sitting, but smaller meals are more common. Charles' lions are said to have eaten about 20 pounds a day.)
Numa died in 1930, and was so beloved by Hollywood that a funeral was held at the farm (with the other lions in attendance, of course). A newspaper account stated that Numa's skin was to be preserved in taxidermy form and displayed in the farm's offices.
Slats also had an interesting film career. Born at Ireland's Dublin Zoo and brought to Hollywood by trainer Volney Phifer, Slats was the original "Leo the Lion" for Goldwyn Pictures (which merged into MGM). Slats, who passed away in 1927, appeared in film bumpers until 1928, when talkies sadly ended his tenure. MGM wanted a roaring lion once sound was readily available. Slats' hide was preserved - either as taxidermy or a rug, depending on who you ask.
A number of rare white lion cubs were born at the farm over the years as well.
Charles may have believed in being kind to his lions, but he was also aware that they can be very dangerous animals. When the Gays went to Europe in 1928 (accounts differ as to whether this was partly a business trip or strictly a vacation), they left their employees in charge of the lion farm, with strict instructions to shoot and kill any escaping lions.
Sadly, three lions made a break for it, mauling the site manager and wounding two other employees. An hourlong standoff ensued, with the lions hiding in some bushes and roaring. The lions who had attacked were shot dead, with the third lion captured.
The Gays reportedly never took a vacation again.
Seven years later, another trainer was mauled in a training mishap. Charles himself was wounded many times over the course of his career.
Other lions were killed at the farm over the years, but not for escaping or for attacking the staff. Lions Club chapters would have banquets at the farm, and on these occasions, broiled and fried lion meat would be served. (I can still remember seeing a news story back in the '90s about a posh La Jolla restaurant serving lion meat. Horrified animal lovers protested vociferously. That doesn't seem to have been the case for the lion farm.)
In 1936, there were reports of a lion roaming the San Bernardino valley, and the San Bernardino Sun reached out to Charles Gay. He told the newspaper that the beast couldn't be an African lion, but was probably a very large mountain lion (which resemble female African lions) instead. An escaped African lion would have decimated the area's livestock and killed several humans in the two months since the sightings had begun. African lions that escape captivity are also relatively easy to track and capture, so it's unlikely one could live in Southern California without being captured quickly.
Over the years, the farm's fortunes began to wane.
Talkies rose in popularity, causing lower demand for adventure movies (among others).
The Depression reduced visitors.
Finally, World War II put the final nail in the coffin. Gasoline and tire rationing reduced visitors, and meat rationing is a problem when feeding 200 large carnivorous animals.
The Gays closed the lion farm in 1942, sending the remaining lions to zoos or individual homes. They intended to reopen after the war, but Charles officially pulled the plug in 1949. He told a newspaper "It takes youth and agility to handle lions." Charles was 62 at this point. The Gays retired to Orange County.
Charles Gay passed away in 1950, and is buried at San Gabriel Cemetery.
There is a monument to Gay's Lion Farm in El Monte, at Valley Boulevard and Peck Road. It's easy to spot, since it's topped by a life-size lion statue. The 10 freeway runs right through the former lion farm.
A different lion statue once stood at the entrance to the lion farm. When the Gays decided not to reopen the farm, they donated the statue to El Monte High School - still the "Home of the Lions", where it remains to this day.