The last lion tamer in Britain is waiting to meet me outside a pub called the Showman in the West Midlands town of Bloxwich. If I’m expecting a mustachioed impresario – charismatic, bullwhip-wielding and perhaps a little shifty – I’m confounded. With neat, slicked-back hair and a healthy glow, Thomas Chipperfield looks more like a young footballer.
Earnest, modest and recognisably belonging to the 21st century, he is an unlikely ambassador for what many see as the ultimate anachronism: big cats performing in a circus ring for paying punters. In the year that circus celebrates its 250th birthday, political parties are striving to outbid each other on animal welfare. Labour has pledged to outlaw wild animals in all circuses; the government has just committed to banning them in England by the middle of January 2020. Scotland prohibited them last year and Wales is looking to do the same. The issue would no doubt be on the agenda in Northern Ireland if there were a functioning assembly. A government consultation found that 94.5% of the public favour outlawing wild animals in circuses, as happens in more than 40 other countries.
Against this tide of public opinion stands Chipperfield, 28, who this year hopes to obtain a circus licence to enable him and his father to take his “big beautiful boys” Tsavo and Assegai on the road in England again.
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