Lion around with my friends
Zaire a nine week old lion cub gets bottle feed. Photo: Colleen Petch
There may be something timeless about the circus, but many of the old clichés don’t hold true.
The old 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 large crew set up tents around them.
Two-year-old Pesaeus West bottle feeds Zaire a nine-week-old lion cub that is part of Stardust Circus at the Queanbeyan Showgrounds. Photo: Colleen Petch
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 21-year 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 over the years.
2-year-old Pesaeus West bottle feeds Zaire a 9-week-old lion cub that is part of Stardust Circus at the Queanbeyan Showgrounds. Photo: Colleen Petch
“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 around 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. 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, in a red sequinned dress, was handling one of the lion cubs on her lunch break.
Mr St James said it was a shame that Canberra’s ban on exotic animals, which dates back to 1992, remained in place, because a large portion of the audience at the Queanbeyan shows came from across the border.
“We always hear people from Canberra saying how ridiculous it is that we can’t have the circus there, but unfortunately it’s these small-minded bureaucrats that have got their own opinions on things,” 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 policy also states that while there are no specific concerns directed at the treatment of animals by individual keepers, the RSPCA's stance is that “no circus, no matter how well managed, can provide an appropriate environment for wild animals”.
Mr St James said people were free to disagree with the notion of circus animals, but that there were different ways of viewing how the animals were treated.
“I do feel that animals in the circus, their minds are a lot more stimulated than an animal in the zoo, for the fact that they see different things every day, different smells, different sights, they don’t get bored, they’ve got the show to stimulate their minds,” he said.
He added that animal welfare groups often used incorrect information to try and dissuade people from going to the circus.
“A lot of the stuff that they try and put out to the public is all stuff from overseas, it has nothing to with Australia. They stand outside the gates and hand out pamphlets with bears and gorillas on them. We don’t have any of that stuff here,” he said.
“And the lies that they make up about what the circus actually does is just horrific. If we did some of the stuff that these people say we did, we would be prosecuted… It’s really quite frustrating when you do the right thing, and you have beautiful animals who you look after and are part of your family, that these people, because they don’t agree with them, they’ve got to try and change everybody’s decision, and the only way to do it is by fabricating stories. It really is quite frustrating.”
The Stardust Circus opens on Thursday February 14, and runs until February 24.