'Irresponsible and foolish': Lion trainer criticised for performing act in flat during Egypt lockdown

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Ashraf el-Helw says he is broadcasting shows online to encourage people to stay home during Covid-19 pandemic

World | The Independent

A circus trainer has brought lions into his apartment to perform his act during Egypt’s coronavirus lockdown.

Ashraf el-Helw posted a video online of his big cats performing tricks in his Cairo flat and said he is planning to film more. 

The 26-year-old, the third generation in a lion-training dynasty, claims he wants to encourage people to stay at home during the pandemic.

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Egypt’s government has imposed nightly curfew and ordered many businesses to shut to contain the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 5,500 people and killed 392 in the country.

Mr el-Helw’s first video on 20 April received an enthusiastic response from some viewers, but animal rights activists have criticised the footage and said it raises questions about how the lions are treated.

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“This is irresponsible and foolish behaviour,” said Dina Zulfikar, an animal rights activist who sits on the board of Egypt’s largest zoo. “They are not pets, they are wild animals.”

She added bringing wild animals into private homes was against the law, and warned Mr el-Helw’s social media profile gave an unrealistic impression of how dangerous lions are.

His family have been doing circus shows with lions for over a century. His grandmother was a renowned circus performer, Mahassen el-Helw, the Arab world’s first female lion trainer. She was known as “the iron woman” for her stern stage demeanor.

Mr el-Helw’s grandfather, Mohammed, was killed in 1972 during one of his shows by Sultan, a lion who tore him to pieces in front of horrified spectators. 

There have also been reported incidents of several other family members being attacked during shows in recent years.

Ashraf el-Helw and his five-year-old African lion Joumana in his home in Cairo (AP)

Mr el-Helw's older sisters — Luba, 38, Ousa, 35, and Bushra, 28 — are also professional lion trainers at Egypt’s National Circus.

Founded in 1966, the circus is housed in a tent beside the Nile, drawing mostly school groups and working-class families for its evening shows.

Mr el-Helw said he was six years-old when he started working with the animals. By age 16, he was doing performances.

“Since I opened my eyes to the world, I found lions around me,” he said.

The family’s big cats are kept on their farm an hour outside of Cairo, with Mr el-Helw bringing them into the city for the videos. 

After filming is over, they go back to the farm, where the family have some 40 other animals including monkey and other large cats.

During a recent visit to his flat by an Associated Press reporter, Mr el-Helw showed off Joumana, one of the family’s female lions. 

He prompted her to put her paws on his shoulders and the two moved as in a dance. In another trick, the lioness obeyed a command, a light prod with a stick, to walk across a plank, stepping over Bushra.

“They are like my children,” said Bushra, giving Joumana a loving pat on the back.

  • 'Irresponsible and foolish': Lion trainer criticised for performing act in flat during Egypt lockdown photo


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