“I’ve heard the war-time story of my birth on October 3, 1944 so many times, that is seems as though I can remember it,” Roy says, with his charismatic smile. “My mother, Johanna Horn had the misfortune of being nine months pregnant when Allied bombings began to light up Bremerhaven and the neighboring city of Nordenham—two major defense ports—like a blood red torch. Houses were burning, and everyone was screaming. Those that weren’t buried under rubble rushed to the Weser, where there were small boats and the comparative safety of the water.”
Hidden in her basement, Roy’s mother did not know what to do. She had three small children to protect and was about to go into labor. Ordering the children not to leave the safety of the basement until she returned, she got on her bicycle and pedaled through the city.
Bombs were exploding all around her, but she knew she had to make it to her sister’s home. Fifteen minutes after arriving, Johanna gave birth to the last of four sons: Roy Uwe Horn.
“The chances of any infant surviving the final year of the war weren’t very good,” Roy explains. “Food was in short supply, and there was even less fuel for the long cold winter. My mother broke pieces of ice-covered wood from the picket fence in the hope that the small fire she made would keep us alive. This was the situation my father returned to after fighting on the Russian front. Prior to the war, he was an orchestra leader. He took great pleasure is teaching his sons any of the six instruments he played. He was never the same after the war, and my parents divorced soon after the war ended.”
Roy’s mother remarried and things started out well. His new stepfather, who was in the construction business—one of the few industries that flourished after the war—provided nicely for them. “I had a nanny and there were lavish birthday parties.” His war injuries, however began to take their toll and Roy’s step father turned to alcohol. Eventually, his mental deterioration made it impossible for him to work. They soon ran out of savings, and were forced to live on welfare, while they waited for his pension to start.
By the time Roy started school, his mother had to work to pay for his clothes. “In the worst winter weather, she rose at 5:30 in the morning and loaded her rickety bicycle onto a ferry boat, then cycled for miles to reach the factory where she worked for twelve hours. The situation forced me to become very self-reliant. Barely out of kindergarten, I got myself up, made my own breakfast, took myself to school, and came home alone.” To avoid the alcoholic ravings of his stepfather, Roy would sneak down to the basement, crawl out the window with his dog, Hexe, and roam the fields until his mother came home. He was lonely, alienated, and Hexe became his only real friend.
It was during this time that Roy began to develop a deep relationship and understanding of animals. “It is said that the intelligence of animals cannot be what ours is, because what makes humans superior is that we have complex thoughts and animals don’t,” Roy says. “I learned very early that animals sense my thoughts before I have them. People who don’t have strong attachments for animals may think this is sentimental mysticism. For me, it is simply fact. It’s because of what I experienced as a child that my security, my certainty of unconditional trust, unconditional emotion, and unconditional strength comes from animals.”
As a child, Roy’s favorite pastime was to roam the open fields that surrounded his home. He and Hexe, who was jet-black and half wolf, loved to go exploring. “I was a prince and Hexe was my unicorn,” Roy says. “We ran, we flew; out there we knew no boundaries—we were free.” One particularly beautiful day, Roy decided to skip school and he and Hexe went on a journey. He became fascinated by a raven and decided to follow the it Paying more attention to the large black bird than where he was going, Roy unexpectedly fell forward and instantly began to feel himself sink. The harder he tried to get out of the muck, the more he sank. Hexe began howling, then suddenly ran off. Roy was petrified. “By, now I was up to my waist in wetland,” Roy says. “I was crying, ‘Hexe, help me,’” until I had no voice left. Then I heard another voice.” Hexe had brought a farmer who upon seeing the desperate young child ran to get help, and got Roy out. “I was crying and shaking all over, thanking them through my tears. But they said I should thank my dog. I fell to my knees and hugged Hexe for dear life. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that I would be thankful to one of my animals for my safety, or that the harmony would be the strongest and most magical connection in my life.”
Roy also had two other very important people in his life. They were his mother’s best friends, who he called Aunt Paula and Uncle Emil. They gave Roy access to the Bremen Zoo where Emil was the sponsor and founder. “My aunt and uncle knew of my love for animals, and for a birthday present arranged for me to have unlimited access to the zoo and the library. From the time I was about ten, I went there every chance I could.”
Soon Roy was helping to take care of the animals and dreamed of entering the cage of a ferocious tigress. “She lived alone a big cage,” he explains. “It was her loneliness I responded to. Because she was so dangerous, even her handlers couldn’t relate to her.” Nearby the tiger was a cheetah named Chico. He was Roy’s first love affair with an exotic animal, as well as the first cat Siegfried and Roy would eventually use in their act.
“I spent months talking to Chico through the iron bars of her cage,” Roy says. “Every day before I reached the zoo, I gave a special whistle call. By the time I got there, she had returned my whistle with a chirping birdlike sound. It was so sensitive; you would never associate with a big, powerful cat.” The handlers sensed Roy’s relationship, and finally gave him permission to enter the cage. Eventually, Chico’s trust became so strong that Roy could put a collar on him and take him for walks. The zoo quickly became Roy’s second home. Chico and Hexe became his confidants, and escape from the realities of his often terrifying life at home.
At thirteen, Roy had two choices; either he could enter a vocational school, or take an exam to continue with secondary education. Roy felt it was time to leave—both school and his home town. “I had to get out of there,” he says, “to find somewhere else in the world that was wholesome.” But where does a thirteen year old boy go? Destiny interceded and Roy was hired onto a ship belonging to the North German Lloyd. Roy’s mother was shattered but she could not stop him. As this scrawny kid stood on the deck watching everyone wave goodbye to their loved ones, all of the sadness in his life seemed to emerge at once.
Five days into the voyage, the ship hit bad weather and almost sank. Roy remembers looking out a porthole and seeing a sailor that had been washed overboard go floating past. “The passengers were in a complete panic,” he goes on to say. “With two other bellboys, we had to try and control them as they stampeded to the lifeboats.” By 3:30 the next morning, another ship, the United States, came to their rescue and towed them into New York Harbor. Knowing that his parents would be panicked, he sent them a telegram, and then decided to see New York. Although he spoke no English, he took off with map in hand.
Roy returned to his hometown after the ship was repaired, and was greeted by his family. The first thing he did was go see Chico, who, each time he returned to sea, seemed to know when he was leaving. Although it was very difficult, “I knew that my decision to leave home was the right one,” Roy insists. “Slowly, my soul was beginning to heal. There really was a bright, better world out there. And I couldn’t turn away from it now. I also knew that something would happen so Chico and I could be together.” A few years later, something did happen.