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Youngsters unite in the fun of the circus

There may be something timeless about the circus, but many of the old cliches don't hold true.

The adage that one should never work with children or animals is one of them, especially for the Stardust Circus, one of the last circuses in Australia to include exotic animals in its show.

Nine-week-old lion cubs Zaire and Zimbi, Stardust's newest arrivals, were more than happy to cosy up to the company's youngest human member, two-year-old Pesaeus West, while the crew set up tents around them.

The cubs are 21st-generation members of the circus, with a lineage dating back to the company's earliest shows in 1893.

The circus is officially in town, although for Canberrans, this means a quick trip across the border to Queanbeyan, due to the capital's ban on exotic animal performances.

Stardust ringmaster Adam St James said the ban was frustrating and behind the times, as guidelines for keeping circus animals had tightened.

''Stardust Circus is the first circus ever to introduce an outdoor exercise yard for the animals, so that's something that we're very proud of,'' he said.

''All our animals can be inspected any time of the day or night by any of the animal governing bodies like RSPCA and biosecurity, and all of them have verbally praised us on the condition of our animals and their living conditions. So, certainly, over the years things have changed but they've changed for the better.''

The circus has three lions, two lion cubs, monkeys, ponies, performing dogs, performing pigs, performing goats, and about 30 human staff, including 10 children.

And life as a circus child is also a little different to the wild and carefree image romanticised in popular fiction.

''We have two full-time teachers at the circus,'' he said. ''Our children do a small training session in the morning with their coaches, then they have a morning tea break … and they do normal school hours like all the other kids. They don't get out of it.

''As fun as it is for them to be in the circus, they've still got to go and do their schooling,'' he said, motioning to 10-year-old Memphis West, who was handling one of the lion cubs on her lunch break.

Mr St James said it was a shame Canberra's ban on exotic animal performances, which came into force 1992, remained in place, because a large portion of the Queanbeyan audience came from across the border. ''We always hear people from Canberra saying how ridiculous it is that we can't have the circus there,'' he said.

The RSPCA's official stance on circuses is that it's ''opposed to the continued use of non-domesticated (exotic) animals, such as elephants, large cats and non-human primates (monkeys), because the requirements of circus life are not compatible with the physiological, social and behavioural needs of these animals''.

■ The Stardust Circus opens on Thursday, February 14, and runs until February 24.

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