Big cat trainer explains why lions attack their trainers
Big cats play at pouncing on each other all the time in the wild – but for humans, it’s a fine line between gaining their trust and feeling their claws.
When a lion pounced on trainer Faten El-Helw during a circus performance in Egypt last week, it reminded me of the danger I face every day as the only circus big cat trainer currently working in Britain. It also made me think: “Oh no, here’s another opportunity for animal rights groups to push their anti-circus propaganda” – because many people will always assume that an animal would only react that way because of mistreatment.
Having watched the video taken from ringside, however, it was immediately clear to me from the lion’s body language that it never intended to harm Ms El-Helw. The fact she was back on her feet within seconds confirms that. Obviously, she was hurt and reportedly suffered a hairline fracture to her pelvis, just from an animal of that weight jumping on her. But if it had meant to do serious damage, it could have.
Normally, I would never comment on another trainer’s work. I’ve never met Ms El-Helw or seen her work. But in this instance I have a lot of sympathy for her, because, judging purely from the lion’s behaviour in the video, the only mistake she seems to have made is a split-second lapse of concentration.
It looks like a young animal that probably hasn’t been working for long, and while the trainer was taking her compliments from the audience, something clearly caught his attention. You see him crouched for about three seconds, looking, before he leaves the pedestal.
It could have been a new costume. I’ve had instances myself where the animals see something different and, being naturally curious creatures, they’re intrigued by it and want to play with it. In this case, from the way the lion grabbed her, I think he was probably trying to play with something on her costume – or just play with his trainer.
Obviously Ms El-Helw didn’t notice the lion crouching down, because any trainer who sees an animal do that will immediately let the animal know they can see them. The animal will then straighten up and stay where they are, because they know that, if you can see them, you’re not at a disadvantage, and they can’t get the drop on you.
Of course, they’re not trying to sneak up on you because they’ve got it in for you – it’s just the way lions play with each other. They won’t run at each other while there’s eye contact. One waits until the other’s looking away, and then they jump. It’s part of their predatory instinct and it comes out in playful behavior.
Having worked with lions and tigers all my life, I’ve come to the conclusion they can have similar levels of affection for a human as might a dog. They enjoy working and learning new things. They’re happy to have you around and treat you as one of their own. But you always have to remember that they are wild animals. Even a Jack Russell will bite someone one day, and it’s going to hurt a lot more if a lion bites you.
So while you have to create an environment where the animals feel comfortable around you, you also have to be a figure of authority. There has to be a limit where you say: “No. Go and do that among yourselves. That’s not for me.” It’s a fine line to walk, because you have to be firm in a way that doesn’t cause them to resent you or perceive you as a threat. You can’t afford to mistreat a lion or tiger because eventually they’ll get fed up and show you that they’re much bigger, stronger and faster than you are – and that can only end badly. But if you have respect for your animals and you’re aware of their behavior and mood on any given day, there’s no reason why a trainer should ever get hurt.
When I’m in the cage, my parents, who are very experienced with big cats, stand outside and watch the animals to make sure one of them doesn’t do what happened in Egypt when I’m not looking. In an emergency, we would use a CO2 fire extinguisher, which is the most humane way to get a big cat off a person. The blast of CO2 forces them to let go, so they can catch their breath, without hurting the animal.
I’ve never had to use the fire extinguisher, though, and I’ve never seen anyone else have to. Because, at the end of the day, the reason accidents like El-Helw’s make news around the world is because they are extremely rare. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me and neither has my father or grandfather, who trained big cats before me. If you’re vigilant and aware, the worst injuries you’ll get are bites and scratches from handling cubs.
Thomas Chipperfield is Britain’s only circus big cat trainer.