as lived by Michael kostial sr. & michael kostial jr.
My Husbands Grandfathers
People have been trying to tame wild animals since the start of time. The modern history of animal training dates back to the 1830’s when circus shows began feeding, taming and training for entertainment. In the early 1800’s exotic animals became an attraction to all throughout Europe then into America. Looking back with 2022 knowledge and understanding, animal shows from the past can seem cruel. Yet animal shows, like at the St. Louis Zoo, were common place and a positive experience for the public.
To this day animal shows or animal inspired excursions still pull in the crowds (and cash) at aquariums, resorts, and animal habitats like zoos or farms.
These shows preform multiple times a day and with additional personal interactions available for extra cost. In this age we want the personal experience but also make sure we pay attention to the welfare of the animals foremost. That looks different than it did 90 or even 50 years ago.
These experiences are part of a human desire to connect, learn and educate ourselves on other species.
Michael Kostial Sr, a 1914 United States immigrant from Otura, Hungary (now Czechoslovakia) came to America for work. He started out in St. Louis as a factory laborer, then a baker but brought an animal training background with him. During these years he also trained as a lion and tiger tamer and act performer. Records show he performed with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. During the great depression many performers in the circus realm lost their careers.
Mike Sr learned how to train wild animals, almost exclusively lions and tigers, with a reward system. He did not train with punishments which was revolutionary at the time.
Mike Kostial Sr ended up getting a new job as an animal caretaker at the St. Louis Zoo in 1931. His funny banter and animal charm were quickly noticed by zoo patrons who started meeting around the lion and tiger exhibits at feeding times. Mike Kostial Sr would educate the public about lion and tiger behavior, habits and abilities in such an entertaining way that he became a hit attraction.
A show was born.
Soon a sidewalk show was taking place daily with lion cubs in addition to his feeding time show. It wasn’t long before a new enclosure was built so Mike Sr could host a larger audience. Mike Sr was the St. Louis Zoo’s first documented lion and tiger show. His performances were known coast to coast.
His ablity to educate the visitors and charm the big cats catapulted the St. Louis Zoo into a new league.
Show or not, Mike Sr was still the animal caretaker in every way. Because of this he never was able to take a vacation or a day off. The cats depended on him until the year he died. News of his death was spread across the United States where he was notably acclaimed for the thoughtful care of animals under his care, his wit, and his groundbreaking remarkable show.
Mike Kostial, Sr worked at the zoo daily and his two sons also joined their dad by working concessions and helping with the animal show. His oldest son, Michael Kostial, Jr showed an interest in animal training as well. He was notably good at training chimpanzees and it wasn’t long before Mike Jr stepped into the animal show realm. His care and attention to the chimpanzees as well as the show arena was extraordinary. Mike Jr even took the chimpanzees home to train them for acts in his show. Each year Mike Jr would make his own massive sets, train the chimpanzees and put on an impressive amount of shows to a full amphitheater of zoo visitors.
This was a massive undertaking and quite laborious. His shows evolved to include chimpanzees riding miniature ponies, electric cars, motorcycles, plAYING instruments and even roller-skatING!
Today, animal shows at the St. Louis Zoo focus on animal education in their natural habitat. The idea to train animals to act human has taken a back seat to humans understanding and partaking in best animal practices. The legacy of animal training and performance shows run deep in our culture and in my husbands family.
Evolution in animal training includes human minds too. as we learn to nurture and find the beauty and talent in ourselves and the animals around us.
My husbands Great Grandfather Michael Kostial Sr. and Grandfather Michael Kostial Jr may be world renowned but they are also celebrated for their accomplishments within our family. They fulfilled the education and performance required of them during their time at the St. Louis Zoo and did it to the best of their ability. It is truly remarkable the feats they accomplished.
Do you have a connection to the circus or animal attraction in your family history? I would love to hear about it!
Want to know what recipe gets me to preform tricks for? Try my Simple Snow Ice Cream the next time you have snowfall in your area. Delish!