A friend visited the other day and suggested we watch the 2008 HBO documentary ‘Cat Dancers’. The film is about the eponymous dance troupe which used big cats like tigers and leopards in their act, and was ended abruptly after two deadly freak accidents. My friend wanted me to watch it because he thought I would find the main character’s flamboyance humorous. In the end, that wasn’t the case so much as that I came away with an unshakable, almost obsessive perception of (at least negligent) homicide.Very few on the internet seem to see it the same way as I do, with the exception of a comment here and there.
It makes me wonder if because of the similar features in themes of death, sex, and documentary techniques – my brain has contorted Cat Dancers into a ‘Forensic Files’ episode, where the husband is almost always guilty, and an assignment of culpability is to be expected.
Cat Dancers centers on the character of Ron Holiday (aka Ronald Guay) who is a sympathetic figure in recalling the history of the dance troupe, which had consisted of he, his wife Joy Holiday (aka Doris Rachel Gagnon Guay), and young partner Charles “Chuck” Lizza. In the documentary, Ron alleges this was a love triangle involving all three individuals consensually. Lizza lived with the Holidays (Guays) after meeting them as part of a carnival act.
Both Joy and Chuck died in separate incidents 5 weeks apart in 1998 in Alachua, Florida. The deaths involved a single white tiger named ‘Jupiter’ who was associated with the act. Ron Holiday was the sole witness to both deaths and was handling Jupiter at the time. In both instances, Ron was apparently unharmed.
In the case of Chuck Lizza, Ron Holiday alleged that while walking Jupiter on the property, the animal sat and wouldn’t budge. Ron called to Joy in the house to rouse Chuck from bed as only Chuck could supposedly help move his “son” (Jupiter). Minutes later, as Chuck walked towards Jupiter and Ron, Ron alleges that Chuck’s slip-on moccasin caught on a piece of chain link fence which was laying about from construction; and Chuck fell across the cat, causing the cat to bite him across the neck. In retellings like the below, the story sounds convoluted to me.
Importantly (I think) at this moment, and other points in the narrative (such as when Jupiter is introduced – and Ron relates a story of accusing Chuck of ‘rubbing meat on his lap’ to ingratiate himself to the kitten), Ron seems to express some kind of jealousy about Chuck’s close relationship with the cat. I feel this may plausibly also be related to Ron’s potential jealousy as a member of a love triangle. In addition, Ron to me seems to ‘blame the victim’ so to speak, by emphasizing Chuck staying up late, the shoes he chose to wear, etc. when relating the incident.
In the case of Joy Holiday’s death, Ron claimed that Joy had become depressed since the death of (her lover) Chuck, and stayed in bed losing weight, often claiming that she wanted to die. He claims one night five weeks after the death, she agreed to go out and see their cats (including Jupiter who had not been euthanized after the Chuck Lizza death).
When Ron walked Jupiter into the enclosure Joy was in, supposedly she started shaking holding the meat she intended to feed the cat. Ron says Jupiter leapt up in a blink of an eye, grabbed Joy by the neck and threw her body against the roof of the cage – presumably killing her instantly.
Although Cat Dancers as a documentary didn’t cover it, on the Animal Planet show Fatal Attractions which did an episode on this matter, it seems that Ron went into the house and got a gun after the incident. Others at the home had to dissuade him from using it on either the cat or himself. Still, Ron was the only witness. Police shot the tiger. (The same detective investigated both incidents and classified them as accidents. He later went on to be chief of the Alachua County Sheriff office in Florida.)
After the investigation into the death, Ron seemed to blame the incident on Jupiter being “inbred” (all white tigers are); and claimed he had no idea the frail Joy was twice the legal limit of alcohol at the time of her death.
The Cat Dancers documentary seems to have left a lot on the table and unknown to viewers. As the Animal Planet episode showed, there had been previous incidents involving the Holiday’s cats.
As court records show, Ron Holiday (as Ron Guay) later settled civil negligence charges out of court with Chuck Lizza’s family. Ron’s claimed lack of knowledge that the weak and despondent Joy Holiday was twice the legal limit the night he brought a nocturnal predator into an enclosed area she was in holding bits of meat is also in my opinion strong grounds to substantiate a claim of negligence.
I’m by no means a tiger behavior expert; though I have read a lot of Jim Corbett stories. I’ve looked at the reconstructions of the Siegfried and Roy attack (which may be similar in terms of the fall-bite scenario). In the course of reading about this case, I also read about the behavior of tigers who killed zookeepers. While it does seem clear that the wounds on Chuck and Joy were inflicted by Jupiter, it doesn’t seem that Jupiter’s behavior was like that of other tigers on a kill/mauling which seem to exhibit some possessiveness and can be hard to get the victim away from them.
Also, I would say that Ron being present in both instances and being unharmed as someone who really loved these people supposedly seems inconsistent with human behavior. I would almost expect him to have suffered some injury in the struggle. Something about the behavior of both Jupiter and Ron just doesn’t seem right to me.
It is clear the cat did the killings, but I really wonder if Ron set these cats on Joy and Chuck for selfish reasons. I feel Ron has expressed twinges of jealousy in his statements about especially Chuck as he relates to Jupiter. Perhaps Ron was afraid he was going to lose Joy to Chuck and everything he built with her.
I’m probably the only person who looks at the film this way – or one of the extraordinary few misanthropes who does. Normal people who watch this come away with sympathy for gentle Ron Holiday and his loss.
On the other hand, perhaps I have watched too many Forensic Files episodes, wherein the spousal figure is almost always the culprit. Where explanations of shoes catching on stairs leading to head injuries is usually just a cover for murder. Where no man who led a drunk woman into a tiger cage resulting in her death is going to be let off scot-free.
Although Ron objectively seems to have settled a negligence case about Chuck which may substantiate some of these feelings – maybe it is just that my brain wants to twist this film along the same contours of the questions one might have watching Forensic Files, knowing that by the end there will be a satisfying assignment of guilt. I can’t help but think the story of Cat Dancers is an unsolved (and unknown) perfect murder, with a tiger as the weapon, but the climax never comes like Forensic Files. I can’t help but think this was inadequately investigated. I think the tiger and Ron may have acted ‘inauthentically’. No Forensic Files episode on Cat Dancers would have ended without Ron being charged – but perhaps this is just my brain trained on Forensic Files to see it that way.
Watch the full Cat Dancers here:
And maybe read a Corbett story while you’re at it: