SHREVEPORT, La. — Toto the wrestling bear was described as “no man’s plaything in ring” in a 1939 headline printed in The Shreveport Times.
It was a warning from promoter Julius Sigel to Jim “Goon” Henry of Oklahoma City, who would soon be facing the 300-pound creature in the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium — and the first time such a match was documented in the Shreveport paper.
“Toto has been taught all the tricks of wrestling,” Sigel said in the article. “He has been carefully trained and is no ‘small time performer.’”
The bear lived up to that warning that night, but against Henry Pearce “the Purple Flash,” per a follow up article. Pearce tackled the bear, but was jolted by the creature with a blow to the head that knocked skin from his forehead, and also scratched him on the leg.
The following Monday, Russian grappler Ivan Managoff was set to wrestle the bear in the same venue and, reportedly, before one of the largest crowds of the winter grappling season.
Decades later, these “feature attraction” events came to an end when lawmakers heard the voices of concerned citizens, regarding the treatment the bears underwent for others’ entertainment.
Now, and since the early ‘90s, anyone who is found guilty of participating in bear wrestling matches can face fines or jail time.
“I did wrestle a bear one time, but that’s it,” former wrestler Jim Starr told The Times.
But that was back in the ‘60s, he said, and somewhere in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Starr began professionally wrestling during the late ‘50s or early ‘60s and continued in the business until sometime around the late ‘70s. He wrestled in Shreveport a number of times as he traveled and wrestled in different areas, but eventually came back and opened a gym in Bossier City — a business he’s maintained the past 41 years.
In Shreveport’s past, wresting shows were at least a weekly occurrence at the Municipal Auditorium, according to local Kathryn Usher. Her father, Jerry, was a wrestling referee for years in Louisiana.
“It was great when it was sold out,” Starr said of the venue. “If it wasn’t, it wasn’t too good.”
Starr estimated the venue could hold about 3,000 for a wrestling show. If the crowd was large enough, they’d put chairs on the stage to seat another 800 or so, he said.
Wrestling bears, however, was considered as a novelty, a side event to draw in money, Starr said.
“It was never something that was happening day-in and day-out at a territory,” Usher said.
At least in several occasions, bears such as Victor, Gentleman Ben, Sonny and Ginger made appearances at the Municipal Auditorium. Their names sporadically appeared in both ads and sports articles printed in The Times until the ‘70s.
Bears used in wrestling were usually defanged and declawed, as well as kept in small trailers and fed poor diets, according to previous reports.
In early May 1988, a Bossier lounge was scheduled to host two shows where customers could pay to take a shot at wrestling Toby, a brown bear. But the business canceled the event to avoid getting into a dispute with a local animal rights group.
At that time, however, bear wrestling was still legal in Bossier Parish. But in some other areas of the state, the activity was already banned per ordinance.
The year prior in Baton Rouge, a wrestling match for Ginger the bear was blocked by the animal control center director because the match would have violated a city ordinance that had already been in effect for 25 years.
Even at the start of the 1992 legislative season, bear wrestling was still reportedly legal in some parishes. But by the end of it, the activity was outlawed in every corner of Louisiana by the means of state law with little debate from lawmakers.
“It was just a poor form of entertainment that was at the expense of the animals,” Jeff Dorson, Louisiana Humane Society director, told The Times in a 2011 report. Dorson lobbied for the bill in 1992.
“The state congress was surprisingly sympathetic to the bill after we showed them videotape and pictures of the animals,” Dorson said.
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