Shropshire circus brings its lions to the county
[gallery] Being trapped in an enclosed space with a lion is a lot of people's worst nightmare, but one animal trainer gets on so well with the big cat, it expects a kiss on the cheek.
Peter Jolly's Circus has rolled in to Tern Hill, near Market Drayton, this week and brought with it wild animals, a wire walker and traditional clowns.
With about 30 people involved, the circus is one of only two in the UK licensed to perform with wild animals.
The Shropshire-based circus hosts multi-talented performers, including a lion trainer with at least eight generations of trainers before him.
Thomas Chipperfield performs with tigers and lions in the show and can trace back hundreds of years of his ancestors, who were all lion trainers.
He has raised the current lions from when they were about six-months-old.
He said: "They may as well have been given to us straight from the wild; they hadn't had any human contact before us."
Two lions perform with him during the show, which has taken a painstakingly slow process to perfect.
He said: "I build it up. I feed them through the fence for a while, then I open the fence and feed them that way for a few weeks, then I'll get in there with them.
"After that it's almost like training a seal, but using meat instead to get them to follow a stick and move in different ways."
The show features tigers rolling over for him, one large cat jumping over his head and a lion licking him on the cheek.
But Mr Chipperfield has admitted to having a few close calls.
"One night whilst I was in the ring with the tigers, the lights went out completely," he said.
"I was completely at their mercy at that point. They could see me and I couldn't see a thing. I knew that one was lying in front of me, and I just told them calmly to get back on their pedestals.
"It felt like an eternity, but when the lights came back on they were just sat there, they weren't even looking at me."
He added: "That's why you've got to have that level of trust and respect."
Circus founder Peter Jolly said the whole industry may seem like another world, but for them it is a way of life.
He said: "A lot of the performers were born into the circus and learned it all from a young age so it's all they know.
"When you live and work together all the time, you have to get along. Like every family we have our ups and downs, but it really is just like a family unit."
The group travel with the animals throughout the year, resting only in the winter during bad weather.
Anthony Beckwith, who works behind the scenes, has been at the circus for 12 years now.
He said: "A lot of the performers learn from a young age because they're born into it. They pick up and imitate their parents.
"Our wire walker has been doing it since she was a child – now she's completely perfected it."
But the use of wild animals in their show has sparked anger from animal rights activists.
Animal Defenders International (ADI) has claimed that constant travelling and bad conditions inflicted by circuses is cruel for the animals and affects their welfare.
Jan Creamer, chief executive of ADI, said: "Animals with travelling circuses are on the road for almost the entire year.
"They have to endure constant transportation and live in rudimentary, temporary accommodation."
MP for Telford & Wrekin, Mark Pritchard has campaigned for the ban of wild animals in travelling circuses.
He was thrilled earlier this year with reports that suggested the Government may impose the ban in new legislation, and described it as a "real result".
But Peter Jolly's Circus, based in Craven Arms, said that there was no way the animals are mistreated.
Mr Beckwith explains that all the animals have plenty of space, food and drink, and that the well-being of each animal must be recorded.
He said: "We have inspections from the Government seven times a year, and three of those are complete surprises but we always get good feedback.
"We see all the videos and photos that the animal rights groups put out, and those cases upset us, especially Thomas, because he has such a strong relationship with the cats.
"But the truth of it is that it's usually somewhere abroad where they don't have the strict regulations that we do."
He added: "You can't demonise an entire industry by the horrible actions of individuals."
Mr Chipperfield added: "Most lions in the wild don't die of old age. They usually die of starvation because of the dangers out there.
"My father had a lion that lived into its thirties, and most of ours live around three times the life expectancy of one in the wild.
"With what I'm doing on stage, I just can't mistreat them. It's too dangerous to be a tyrant because they'll begin to know my limits."
The circus is at the Old Railway Yard, opposite Tern Hill Hall Hotel until Sunday.
It begins at 6.30pm on weekdays, at 2pm and 5pm on Saturday, and at 2pm on Sunday. To book tickets, call 07850 687503 and more for more information visit www.peterjollyscircus.moonfruit.com
Keeping the old traditions alive:
Shropshire-based Peter Jolly's Circus has been entertaining audiences around the country for about 40 years.
Its founders aim to entertain audiences in the most traditional way possible, keeping the old magic of the circus within its performance.
It was set up by Peter Jolly and wife Carol who initially ran the whole show alone, having previously worked at the famous Billy Smart Circus.
Now based in Craven Arms, near Ludlow, the show is making sure all its performances continue in the traditional manner, as well as behind the scenes.
The show, which is currently being performed in Tern Hill, near Market Drayton, until Sunday, uses classic acts such as juggling and clowns, lion training and high wire walking.
Peter Jolly said: "We don't buy in anything manufactured. Even the big top I made by putting together the rolls of plastic – it took me 12 weeks.
"The costumes are handmade too, and they aren't garish or trying to be fashionable like a lot of circus acts these days, they are traditional."
From costumes to ticket booths, the team make everything themselves, including the bright red and yellow signage seen all over the site.
The idea of a circus is believed to have begun in England in 1770 when Philip Astley, a former cavalry Sergeant Major, decided to become a showman.
He opened his first circus in Paris and to inject some excitement hired acrobats, rope dancers and jugglers.
By Rebecca King
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