10/10/2003 12:00AM

With tigers, safety is only an illusion

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It was the day before Thanksgiving, 1989. While in Las Vegas I picked up a gig with a camera crew to cover the opening of the city's newest resort, the Mirage. I, along with an army of media, waited at the Strip entrance of the Mirage. It was 7 a.m. We lined up in our spots, took a VIP tour of the facility, then filed back outside to see the first "official" guests.

Who would be the dignitary selected as the first guest?

A huge white Rolls-Royce rolled up to the entrance and stopped at a podium. The doors opened and out stepped a beautiful white tiger. A big beautiful white tiger. At the other end of an industrial-strength leash were the Las Vegas performers Siegfried and Roy. The white cat stood, majestic and tall, as he waited for a command. His steely eyes perused the too-close-for-comfort throng of media people as though he were sizing them up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

That image came vividly to mind when the news of Roy Horn's on-stage mauling by a 7-year-old show tiger abruptly ended an over 13-year run by Siegfried & Roy as headliners at the Mirage. And, almost ended Horn's life.

Horn - who is the one that works with the tigers on stage - remains in critical condition from injuries and extensive blood loss sustained from the incident at the Oct. 3 performance.

The mauling occurred about 45 minutes into the Friday night show, when a tiger named Montecore refused a command to lie down. The tiger then locked his jaws on Horn's arm. The illusionist, who was celebrating his 59th birthday during the show, responded by tapping the tiger with his microphone, at which time Montecore jumped at his neck, grabbed him, and proceeded to drag Horn off stage. The audience was in shock. The off-stage crew quickly persuaded the tiger to turn Horn loose and administered first aid before the performer was transported to University Medical Center.

Horn underwent emergency surgery that night. He suffered a stroke and had another surgery on Saturday. It is too early to say whether Horn will suffer any permanent injuries, but his personal physician, Dr. Stephen Miller, said he is optimistic that Horn will pull through.

Siegfried Fischbacher, Roy Horn's stage partner for 44 years, said the mauling was an accident and not an attack. If it wasn't, he said, "Roy would be no more." He also said that Roy's final words backstage were to not harm the tiger. In his first public statements on Wednesday, Fischbacher said, "We started this together and we know we're going to finish it up together, whatever it is."

Maybe so, but not, evidently, at the Mirage.

On Monday, the show's producers confirmed that after 5,750 performances at the Strip resort, the stage show has been permanently closed. Although Horn's health is paramount to most, the impact of the show's financial contribution also will be felt by many. The pair, with a now out-of-work cast of 267, performed six sellout shows weekly in the 1,503-seat Siegfried & Roy Theater. At an average ticket price of $110, the show generated about $44.6 million a year.

The U.S. Agricultural Department has launched an investigation into the mauling, and other Las Vegas shows that feature live tigers and wild animals are now under scrutiny, for not only the performers' safety but also the audience's.

There was no protective screen between the stage and the audience at the Siegfried & Roy show. Meanwhile, Montecore remains in quarantine for 10 days at his Mirage habitat to ensure he doesn't have rabies.

The pair's manager, Bernie Yuman, reflected on Siegfried & Roy's amazing career, which began well before they moved to the Mirage. He said, "There have been more than 30,000 live shows and one anomaly."

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.