Meet The WWII-Era Joe Exotic Predecessor From Miami County

Terrell Jacobs, owner of lion act at Madison Square Garden, presents his 6-week-old twins to Sheba.

Long before Joe Exotic captured our quarantined hearts or animal advocates began calling foul on wild animal entertainment, Terrell Jacobs ran off to join the circus. Born in Marion in 1903, he grew up in Peru, where the circus was a way of life. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Winter Quarters piqued Jacobs’s interest at an early age, but no one in Peru would hire the 13-year-old (too young), so he traveled to the West Coast and got a start cleaning monkey cages for a small show. “My father had a natural knack with animals and worked his way into it,” says Charles Davenport, the youngest of Jacobs’s four children, all of whom followed him into the business. 

Indeed, young Jacobs quickly climbed the ranks tending a menagerie of animals for different circuses. He was still in his teens when he took on a lion act for $10 and became an instant success. He soon made his way back to Peru and the legendary hometown show, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. 

Early in his career, Jacobs lost an eye to a lion scratch, but he still had a vision to become one of the top big cat trainers in the world. He and his leading lioness, Sheba (who curiously grew a mane), made headlines with acts that included rolls, hind-leg stands, and wire walking. Headlining the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth during the 1938–39 season, Jacobs performed with 50 lions, tigers, and leopards in the ring at once—a dangerous feat never attempted before or since. 

But being good at it didn’t mean staying safe. In an interview, Jacobs was asked if the ferocious cats ever hurt him. “Yes, 586 stitches in my body,” he replied. “Both legs broke, both arms broke, and my right shoulder.” But being mauled didn’t stop him, and he even saved the life of fellow trainer Mabel Stark when two fighting tigers attacked her in the ring.

Jacobs traveled the world throughout his 40-year career while always calling Indiana home. In 1940, he built his own winter quarters, Jungleland, south of Peru, complete with ornately painted animal cages, practice rings, and even a hippo pool. Davenport, his son, claims it was home to lions, tigers, and elephants, as well as other exotic cats, hyenas, ostriches, monkeys, a hippo, horses, and camels. Reportedly, 10 elephants are buried on the site. By 2017, it was listed as one of the top 10 most endangered historic landmarks in the state, but this show isn’t meant to go on. INDOT acquired the property and began demolishing the irreparable barns this past spring. You can still see many of the cages, wagons, and artifacts from the Terrell Jacobs Wild Animal Circus at Peru’s International Circus Hall of Fame.