— The tiny figure of a 3-year-old girl wavered and wobbled on one foot, her little arms outstretched in an effort to maintain her balance on the tightrope. Below the diminutive daredevil, nine Siberian tigers — hungry Siberian tigers — looked up at her as if waiting for a snack to fall out of the sky.
The scene unfolded at a zoo in China, where an aerialist act has thrilled — and offended — spectators with acts of derring-do performed on a 50-meter-long tightrope stretched 29 feet above the tigers’ habitat. Although there are other elements to the act, the unquestioned star is Xiaoyan, whose father has billed her as the world’s youngest tightrope walker.
Entertainment or torture?
In a video that seems destined to go viral, Xiaoyan actually is blown off the wire by high winds. Only a cable shackled to the high wire and attached to a harness prevented her from becoming tiger chow. According to a story in the British newspaper The Daily Mail, spectators screamed when she lost her balance.
“If she was my child, I would never let her do anything like that, no matter how talented she is,” the newspaper quoted a spectator as saying.
TODAY’s Hoda Kotb was more blunt after watching the video with co-host Kathie Lee Gifford during the fourth hour of Tuesday’s show.
“This is torture, I’m sorry,” Kotb said.
Gifford wasn’t as offended.
“They’ve probably been in the circus business forever. It’s bred into them,” she said, adding, “I’m not condoning it.”
‘They can bite’
Despite the objections of some, Zhang Shenwen, the director of the high-wire troupe — and Xiaoyan’s father — told reporters that all safety regulations are being adhered to. He also said his daughter’s been walking the tightrope since she was 1, making her an old hand at it.
Still, the toddler reportedly told the media that she’s afraid of tigers, explaining, “They can bite.”
The video mostly shows the little girl, but two other artists are also in the picture. One is riding a bike on the wire, and the other is doing tricks on a ladder suspended beneath the bike.
Pictures in The Daily Mail indicate that the two men on the bike were actually in more danger than the little girl. When she falls, her safety harness saves her. But during one performance, a tiger leaped up and managed to swat the bottom of the ladder one of the male performers was hanging on, nearly upsetting him and his partner on the bike.