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When Christian Walliser awoke from a coma, his first words were to ask about his beloved tigers.
The weird thing was that they were responsible for him lying stricken, torn to shreds.
Christian, a 'tiger tamer' by trade, was left fighting for his life after being mauled by three of the fearsome predators just a few moments into a live show at a 'Dinner Circus' in Hamburg, Germany.
Around 170 diners had paid in excess of £125 for the Pagel’s Dinner Circus 'supper club' event, which included a five-course meal and night of entertainment.
They were expecting to see Christian, 28, coercing the majestic beasts into doing tricks, keeping them at bay with a whip, as they chowed down.
But they were dished up something extra that wasn't on the menu – a savage attack.
Three of the five Bengal tigers ripped the trainer apart, seizing an opportunity to pounce when he lost his footing. They bit him on the head and just about tore off his hand.
The horror only ended when circus workers sprayed the agitated animals with fire extinguishers and hoses.
Colleagues used the distraction tactic to allow them to drag their friend to safety while the tigers were contained.
Meanwhile, the audience descended in to chaos and panic.
Christian was left with major injuries to his head, pelvis and hand and also suffered a heart attack in the middle of the ring.
Witnesses told local media that at first they thought that it was part of the act.
One said: "Initially it looked like they wanted to play with him."
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Another said: "He didn't stand a chance. They were on him in an instant."
Twenty people were treated for shock after witnessing the brutal attack, and the stricken trainer was airlifted to hospital for surgery.
Doctors reportedly amputated his hand.
Despite the bloodshed, circus chief Stefan Pagels insisted the tigers were just being 'playful' and that they wouldn't be put to sleep.
He said: "First of all, the tigers did nothing wrong. Secondly, we never punish our animals, we only ever reward them.
"Punishing them would serve no purpose and there is no reason to put them to sleep.
"What you sometimes hear about animals getting a taste for human blood is complete and utter rubbish. As soon as Mr Walliser is back, and we hope that will be soon, he will look after the animals again.
"There is a one-in-a-million chance that something will go wrong and it happened. We have a saying in the circus business that says 'The show must go on'.
"We are sure that Mr Walliser wants us to go on."
Behind the soundbites and the debate around the morality of using wild animals as entertainment, Christian's loved ones were preparing to say their goodbyes.
But miraculously, he survived the assault in December 2009.
In a 2018 interview with German website Schwulissimo, his husband Jan opened up about watching the man he loved being attacked.
Jan recalled: "The animals didn't just attack him, that you can say they just went nuts. No, Christian just tripped and fell into the tiger.
"We only bought the animals six weeks before the accident. I still remember that Christian was wearing these brand new patent leather shoes and tripped over a rubber knob.
"Everything happened so fast."
He told how he saw one of the tigers, Radja, bite Christian in the head and another, India, go for his pelvis.
The third tiger, Jaipur, tore off his hand, he added.
Then when the animals were contained, he was helpless as Christian had his first cardiac arrest in the ring.
He was resuscitated in the ambulance before being airlifted to hospital.
Jan said: "The next night was horror. While Christian was being operated on, they broke into our home. Cash, jewellery, everything was stolen.
"Then Christian's dog ran into the street and was run over. It was the worst day of my whole life."
In hospital Jan and Christian's parents kept vigil as he he fought for his life, and on New Year's Eve, woke up from his coma.
Jan said the first thing Christian did was ask about his animals.
Bizarrely, the couple – who wed on the year anniversary of the incident – still own the three big cats who almost killed Christian.
Jan explained that he had found a Russian buyer for the three 'accident tigers', but when he saw that the animals would spend their lives living in squalid cages, he didn't have the heart to get rid of them.
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They are now part of the couple's tiger breeding programme.
Jan said: "Christian then also told me that the animals were not responsible for the accident. It would have been his fault.
"They only acted instinctively. He's right, too, but until then I've blamed the animals."
The three predators are not the only reminder of that life-changing night, Christian and Jan's relationship came under a lot of pressure.
Jan said: "After the accident … Christian wanted to break up. He didn't understand what I wanted from him because he was in a wheelchair for a long time.
"He didn't even want to change his T-shirt in front of me because his upper body was completely scarred from the defibrillators.
"Scars from the trachea cut and from the tigers are also visible."
- Tiger King
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