NEW YORK — Doris Arndt, whose ability to command big cats and bears made her one of Europe’s best-known circus animal trainers in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when men dominated such acts, died on June 21 in Berlin. She was 88.
Ms. Arndt was only 17 when she made her debut, topping the bill of Berlin’s Circus Barlay as “Lola the Youngest Tiger Bride.” But what drew crowds from all over Europe was her act with a troupe of polar bears, which she trained to leap over her head and balance on a tiered arch as she hung from a swing.
“I love animals,” she told the German daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung in 2014. “They are the reason I joined the circus.”
She joined Circus Krone in 1954 in Munich, where she and her first husband, Alfons Arndt, who also trained animals, perfected an act in which a troupe of polar bears would drink from bottles and balance on balls.
After the marriage ended in divorce, she continued the act on her own, adding three polar bears, which she trained after they were captured in the wild as cubs. That brought the number of bears in the act to 12.
The following December, she appeared in Tom Arnold’s Harringay Circus in England, wearing a fur-trimmed Nordic-style minidress in an act called “Doris Arndt and Munich’s 12 Polar Bears, Veritable Arctic Giants.” The Illustrated London News that year said she was the only female polar bear trainer in the world.
Her bears also made a Hollywood appearance in 1961, in “The Big Show,” a feature film about a European circus family. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Howard Thompson noted, “The polar bear act is fascinating.”
Circus Krone sold the bears at the end of the season that year, and Ms. Arndt returned to performing with big cats, training a troupe of four lions and four tigers. Her final season, with the Circo Medrano in Italy, proved to be her toughest, as she struggled to stretch her own salary to pay for food to maintain her animals.
Later in life, as concerns about animal rights led more circuses to drop wild animal acts from their shows, Ms. Arndt was often quoted as an expert in the news media.
In 2007, when Germany fawned over the Berlin Zoo’s baby polar bear, Knut, she refuted a claim by his trainer that the cub had smiled at him. “Polar bears don’t make faces; they have only three black points, whether they are playing or they are angry,” she told the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel, referring to their black eyes and nose.
Indeed, a polar bear is not to be trifled with, she said. When confronted with another creature, it immediately senses whether it is stronger and may do harm if it feels threatened.
She recalled how a bear had injured her young son, who had wandered into their enclosure. “A polar bear will destroy anything that is weak,” she said.
Doris Kielblock was born on May 7, 1930, in Berlin. As a child she smuggled frogs into her bed at night and boasted that she would approach savage dogs without fear.
At 16 she started an apprenticeship to the circus animal trainer Josef Wiesner, who immediately recognized her talent. She made her debut in the circus ring in 1947.
Her son, Michael Arndt, survives her, as do a daughter, Rosedore Schmidt, from her second marriage, to Martin Schaaff, a Lutheran pastor, and two grandchildren. Schaaff died in 2015.
Though Ms. Arndt stopped performing in 1963, she and Schaaff, who was also fascinated with the circus, kept an archive of posters and other memorabilia in their Berlin home and were honored as special guests whenever the Circus Krone came to town.
In an interview with Berliner Zeitung in 2014, Schaaff recalled the first time he saw the woman he would marry. She was standing in the circus ring surrounded by a dozen towering white bears.
“I was fascinated by her courage and her presence,” he said.