Here's the main thing: Even though a 600-lb. white tiger tore into his neck, punctured arteries and dragged him half-conscious across a stage in front of a live audience, legendary Las Vegas performer Roy Horn is adamant that the animal, named Montecore, never meant to hurt him. All those stories, all those headlines, he says, got it wrong. "Montecore," he insists, "saved my life."
Almost a year after the near-fatal incident that triggered a massive stroke, the trauma to his brain has cost the 59-year-old Roy the use of his left arm and hand and much of the use of his left leg as well. Witnesses claim the tiger appeared to lunge after Roy gave him an attention-focusing microphone bop on the nose during the animals-and-illusions spectacular with partner Siegfried Fischbacher, 65. But Roy maintains that Montecore was really trying to drag him to safety after seeing him felled by what he thinks may have been a stroke. "He instinctively saw that I needed help, and he helped me."
Roy, who has taken medication for high blood pressure for years, says he had recently begun to suffer dizzy spells—and this one spell, unfortunately, occurred in the presence of a very large tiger. "I started feeling kind of weak," says Roy, who still speaks slowly but has recovered most of his German-accented speech. "I fell over. Montecore saw that I was falling down. So he actually took me and brought me to the other exit where everybody could get me and help me. He knew better than I did where to go." Ron Tilson, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo, says the tiger's actions could also be interpreted as predatory: "When tigers kill prey and they want to move it out from the open into a more safe and secure place, they'll usually grab it by the neck. A tiger is a wild animal. No one can predict when its so-called hardwired neural pathway is going to be triggered." But Siegfried, the magician mastermind who performed with Roy for 13 years straight at Vegas's Mirage Hotel, says Montecore had displayed this heroic streak before. He recalls a time the tiger hauled his littermate sister out of a pool as she struggled to keep her head above water. "We joked about it always," says Siegfried. "Montecore the lifeguard."
Whatever Montecore's intentions, the consequences were gruesome. Today, Roy promises, "I'm going to show everybody that I will come back," he says. "That I am back. The magic is back." Doctors who have treated him so far, while certainly not willing to predict a full comeback—he gets around in a motorized wheelchair, and has trouble standing-have learned not to underestimate Roy's physical powers. "If you see him now," says his long-term internist Dr. Stephen Miller, "you cannot comprehend how ill he was." His recovery so far "is a miracle," says UCLA Medical Center's Dr. Katja Van Herle, who oversaw his treatment in November and December. "And I don't say that lightly or glibly. He has an internal fire. That's what is helping him."
In the minutes after the incident, Roy was rushed to University Medical Center in Las Vegas with two gaping puncture wounds to the neck. Before passing out, he recalls, "I said, 'Leave Montecore alone. Bring him back to his brother and sister. Let him be happy: "(See box.) Suffering from severe blood loss and shock, he was considered medically dead at one point when his heart stopped. He also suffered the stroke that would ravage the left side of his body. Roy says he even had an out-of-body experience in the O.R. "I stepped out of my body and looked over the surgeon's shoulder, and I sat while he was cutting me up," he says. "And my mom [who died three years ago] is sitting in a chair, and in front of her is one of my lions I had before, and my Siberian tiger was laying there, and my brother who had passed on years and years ago. And I know everything is going to be fine." Indeed, he survived, but "there were many nights where I cried myself to sleep, that's how much pain I had," says Roy. In his four weeks in the hospital, he drifted in and out (mostly out) of consciousness and suffered clots and a terrible brain swelling. Unable to speak, he tried to express himself by writing after he had been transferred to UCLA Medical Center. At the beginning, his messages were just illegible scrawls (one of his first coherent notes, says Van Herle, was "Please take care of Mr. Siegfried"). Though he has since regained the 30 lbs. he lost, he says even now, "there is pain. Everywhere. My entire body."
Days that used to be organized around the evening's main event at the Mirage—the anchor of what used to be a nearly $60 million-a-year empire for the duo-now begin at 8:30 a.m. with a nurse assisting Roy onto an exercise bike and strapping his feet into the pedals. "I do about seven minutes," says Roy, who still lives at the six-acre Jungle Palace compound eight miles northwest of the Strip but can no longer climb the staircase to his second-floor bedroom, where his pet tigers used to lie down with him. (While awaiting the construction of an elevator, he has been moved into an adjacent single-floor home on the property, equipped with access ramps.) After the bike warmup, he works in the garden until the sun grows hot. Then he attends to business issues, including producing an upcoming Havana-themed Vegas show and vetting scripts for Father of the Pride
, NBC's new computer-animated spoof based on the outlandish entertainers and their menagerie. Unable to needle his friend of 45 years onstage, he sees opportunities in television. "They send me all the scripts and I send it back and complain. I tell them, 'I pay you $5 extra if you make Siegfried shorter than me.' "
Many more hours are put into grueling physical rehab—including walking in a pool or straddling parallel bars—with therapists at home and in local clinics and hospitals. "The process has been a slow, methodical one," says Siegfried and Roy's friend and manager of 29 years, Bernie Yuman. "It's two steps forward, then one step back. But then there are two more steps forward." Recently, he spent two weeks at Denver's Craig Hospital, which specializes in spine and brain injuries. "I saw different people going through the same stuff I'm going through," he says. "Some of them haven't talked or smiled, so I got some of them to talk back to me and smile. I crack jokes. It opened my eyes. It showed me the light at the end of the tunnel. If they can do it, I can do it." Back home, he and Siegfried (who maintains a bedroom suite in the compound but has his own house across town) work out by hitting a balloon back and forth with racquets. "Siegfried comes and we play badminton," Roy says. "I'm a little bit slower. He usually wins. That's why I don't like him anymore."
In fact, Roy has been a new inspiration for Siegfried, who first met him in 1959 when both were working on an ocean liner. Roy was always the stronger one, says Siegfried, "the safety net. I'm born during [World War II in Germany], and I grew up in fear. And Roy took always the fear away from me. Roy tried to teach me about life." And still teaches him. "In my life, the more successful I became, the more empty I got," he says. "Now, my heart is filling up again, and it's a wonderful feeling." Siegfried, says their manager, "has unconditional faith in Roy." He has also braved a few independent steps: "I'm doing things that I haven't done before," he says. "Even putting gas in my car."
In the days before the accident forced them into involuntary retirement, Siegfried and Roy had discussed when they would—or if they could—end the act. Roy was already taking anti-inflammatory drugs for his knees (the cartilage was damaged by years of strenuous activity during performances), and Siegfried sometimes felt tired of the whole operation: "Everything was the show, my life was the show, and the show was my life." He at one point floated the possibility of retiring in 2005, after the debut of their animated series. Yet both men also felt trapped by the sheer size of their enterprise—they employed 250 people, many of them now let go—and the expectations of the audience. As a result, Siegfried felt a weird detachment watching Roy fall that night: "It was not panic," he says. "It was in my mind: 'He needs help.' But my first thing was, and it sounds strange and I feel strange to say it, but I was relieved. In my mind, I'm saying, 'We have to stop.' It was a positive. 'We have to stop...' "
But showbiz, like life, goes on: Since the accident, four leopards that could one day prove natural stars were born at the Mirage's Secret Garden, home to the exotic menagerie of 63—tigers, lions, an elephant and the leopards that were costars in the show at the hotel. Meanwhile, the animals that used to perform haven't forgotten. On a recent visit to the garden, says Roy, "my elephant, she was there—a good girl. I ask her, 'Salute.' And she raises that trunk and I give her her treat. Then I say, 'Say hello to me. Give me your foot.' So she lifted her foot, because she thought I was going to jump on top of her and ride with her around." He's not about to forget, either. When he was first reacquainted with Sitarra, a snow-white tiger, in April, he motored his wheelchair up to her glass enclosure. "He started to lean forward," says Siegfried. "I said, 'What you doing? You can't stand up!' And Roy said, 'I have to stand up. They stood up for me for all those years. Now I have to stand up for them.' And he did. That was the first time he stood up."
The pair have even begun to consider the Vegas stage once more. It will only be together as a team, of course—both Siegfried and Roy. Otherwise, "I would feel I was cheating the audience," says Siegfried, "and I would cheat myself and I would cheat Roy."
Adds Roy: "I wouldn't allow you." For now, he says, "Thank God I'm a cat with nine lives. I'm on my ninth life now, so I still have a little bit more to do."
Tom Gliatto. Michael Fleeman in Las Vegas
- Michael Fleeman.