IT’S the eve of the Bathurst 12 Hour endurance race and most of the New South Wales country town’s hotels are booked out as the buzz on Mount Panorama builds.
But the flash race cars and elite professionals who drive them aren’t the only drawcards to the area this weekend.
The controversial Stardust Circus has also rolled into town, with acrobats, clowns and animals — including African lions and rhesus macaque monkeys — in tow.
It’s the largest animal circus in Australia and one of only two still operating in the country.
Ringmaster Adam St. James has been in the job for 21 years and knows the show like the back of his hand. But tonight he’s reeling.
The circus has long been the target of widespread criticism and protests over its use of exotic animals for entertainment. Animal liberation groups have slammed it as “cruel” and “inhumane”. Stardust vehemently denies the claims and insists the animals are treated like “family”, “enjoy” being part of the act, and “always come first”.
“We’re on display to the public 24 hours a day,” Mr St. James says.
“We can have biosecurity or the RSPCA turn up here unannounced whenever.
“If it was ever proven we had done something (wrong) to our animals we would be prosecuted and closed down.”
But the situation has recently taken a turn for the worse with some of those opposed to the circus “bombarding (staff) with death threats” and warning they will set its six lions free into the dark of the night, according to Mr St. James. He says bookings staff regularly receive abusive calls from protesters who tell them they “should be dead”.
“We’ve been to the police many times because of death threats aimed at the staff because we have exotic animals,” he tells news.com.au.
“We’ve had people say they’re going to come down in the middle of the night and cut the mesh of our enclosures and let the animals go (and that) they’d like to see staff of the circus killed.
“It’s getting to the point where a lot of our staff are quite fearful for their safety.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but for heaven’s sake, does it really have to resort to this type of behaviour?”
Mr St. James is defiant in the face of critics and says the circus will never bow down to them and that Stardust will always be an animal circus.
“Our animals are our big draw card: lions, monkeys, ponies, goats, dogs and pigs,” he says.
As showtime nears, the animals are brought backstage where they briefly wait in holding pens.
Over the next hour and a half, the scene inside the red and orange striped big top is reminiscent a bygone era: lions walking on planks and inside metal wheels; monkeys riding miniature horses; horses performing synchronised dance; and goats climbing over ladders.
The audience claps, cheers and oohs and aahs as the animals take their turns to perform their tricks.
‘IT’S WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT’
Despite mounting pressure to ban the use of animals in circuses, Mr St. James says there’s still “huge public demand” to see the likes of lions and monkeys in the act.
“For every one person who complains there’s 3000 who want to come to the show,” he says.
Bathurst local Kimberley Demamiel has come to the circus to see the lions close up.
“I’m not on the bandwagon of people saying there shouldn’t be animals in circuses,” she tells news.com.au.
“If they’re well looked after like these are and enjoying being in the circus and doing what they’re doing, which these ones obviously are, I think it’s amazing.
“How often are children in Bathurst going to see something like this close up?”
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
Janice Lennon and husband Lindsay own both of Australia’s animal circuses: Lennon Bros and Stardust. Stardust Circus has about 30 staff members, about half featuring in the show while the other half is made up of mechanics, teachers and animal groomers.
Ms Lennon’s adult children from her first marriage — the Wests — and their young children make up the bulk of the act.
They’re six generation performers of the Lennon family, who founded Lennon Bros Circus in the 1890s. But it’s not only the performers who have deep ties the circus’ history.
The lions, born and bred in captivity, are “20th generation” Stardust Circus animals.
“All the animals in the circus are trained by positive reinforcement or the food for reward method,” Mr St James says.
The “positive reward method” involves giving edible treats to the animals when they follow instructions and withholding them when they don’t.
Animal trainer Matthew Ezekial says that despite common belief, the lions aren’t forced to jump through rings of fire and stockwhips are never used to frighten them into action. He says the lions are taught tricks, such as how to “sit” and “stay”, from about six months of age.
“We play with them as babies (and use) a toy and treats to get them to go where we want and figure out what they’re good at and what they’re not,” Mr Ezekial says.
“Once they know what they’re doing we don’t really need to train them anymore.
“When they’re in a good mood they’re happy to let me do whatever I want. But when they’ve had enough you need to heed that.”
The lions are fond of travelling between towns, according to the animal trainer.
The Stardust Circus tours together for 10 months of the year, staying in each location for a minimum of one week and a maximum of four.
“While we’re driving they just sleep,” Mr Ezekial says.
“It’s relaxing so they watch the world go by.
“They get a change of scenery all the time, change of smells, fresh grass and interaction with me and the other trainers, it’s all stimulation.
“If they didn’t like it they’d be showing signs of it …(but) they’re very chilled and relaxed.”
But a playful relationship with the animals doesn’t mitigate the risk of working with them.
It’s a lesson the circus has learned the hard way.
‘SHE ACCIDENTALLY KILLED A GUY’
Stardust Circus was struck by tragedy when Arna the circus elephant trampled handler Ray Williams to death in Yamba, on the NSW north coast, in 2007.
An interim post-mortem examination revealed the 57-year-old’s injuries — a broken back and a ruptured aorta — were the result of a “severe blunt trauma” sustained during the December attack.
“The cause of death was a direct result of the elephant,” the report stated.
Ms Lennon recalls the incident vividly.
“It was dreadful … We never thought (Arna) would do anything,” she tells news.com.au.
“But she accidentally killed a guy. It was a big mistake on the elephant’s part.
“Arna thought the guy had done something to the other elephant but he hadn’t.
“It was a shock to the system.”
At the time there were calls for the circus’s license to be revoked. The family donated Arna and its second circus elephant to the Western Plains zoo in Dubbo.
“We thought ‘what if it happened again’ so put them in the zoo,” Ms Lennon says.
“Arna almost fretted to death because she took it very hard.
“She later died of a broken heart.”
Ms Lennon says the experience taught her that “an elephant is an animal you never trust”.
“You can never trust any animal 100 per cent,” she says.
But she doesn’t have any concerns that one of the circus lions could also “turn” on a trainer.
“We’re not stupid with them,” she says.
“I suppose it’s just like any animal. You be careful. If you saw any warning signs like if it was having a bad day, you’d be prepared for it.”
While the close-knit family business survived it was the last time Stardust would use elephants in its act. But it also marked a sharp shift in public attitudes towards the use of animals as entertainment.
THE FIGHT TO BAN ANIMAL CIRCUSES
The opposition to animals in circuses across Australia has been gaining momentum with several local councils banning them from performing in their areas of jurisdiction.
The Animal Justice Party will push its bill in the NSW Parliament to ban animal circuses statewide. The bill will amend the Exhibited Animals Protection Act 1986, to prohibit exhibition of specified animals within a circus, amusement park, fair or similar place of entertainment. Animal Justice Party NSW Circus Campaign Co-ordinator Rebecca See says training regimes and performances force circus animals to engage in unnatural behaviour for human entertainment.
“When not ‘performing’, these animals are denied the opportunity to roam freely, form complex social groups, and manage their surroundings,” Ms See says.
But according to Mr St. James, those opposed to animal circuses in Australia are simply “uneducated” on the matter.
“People go on about how amazing the wild is, but let’s be honest, in the wild animals are starving to death,” he says.
“A lion can go for a drink at the waterhole and can have its face chewed off by a crocodile. “You have rich Americans paying $50k to go and shoot these beautiful animals because they think they’re a hero.
“The wild is not this fabulous place that everyone makes out that it is.”
Ms Lennon blames animal liberation groups for fuelling negative public opinion of the circus.
“Attitudes have changed because animal liberationists like to push their points across in their own way, making out circuses are horrible to their animals,” she says.
“And a lot of people believe them. It’s the only reason it’s got that far.
“We’re always kind to our animals, we give them the best of everything.”
‘THE LAST GENERATION’
Ms Lennon says the circus will “stop when (they’re) ready” and not because “minority groups” tell them to.
They may be fighting words but the pressure from critics has undeniably had an impact on the future of Stardust and the Lennon Bros. Exotic animals look set to no longer have a place in Australian circuses in about 10 years time.
It’s the main reason the Lennon and West families have decided not to not breed another generation of lions. The current generation will be the circus’s last.
“Once they’ve died off we wont replace them,” Ms Lennon says.
“But while they’re here they’re part of our family and family members.”
Mr St. James says the circus isn’t conceding defeat.
“Eventually it’ll be that you can’t have exotic animals in the circus but I don’t think you’ll ever stop domestic ones,” Mr St. James says.
“When the day comes and we can’t have our lions anymore they’ll be replaced with camels.
“It’s been the family’s tradition since 1893 and we won’t be bossed or bullied into being told we can’t have animals.”