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The Crusade of Britain's Last Lion Tamer

Thomas Chipperfield's family has worked with wild animals in circuses since Charles II was on the throne, but from next year doing so will become illegal.

by Ralph Jones
28 October 2019, 9:15am

Thomas Chipperfield with two of his lions.Photo: Jane Hilton

"It's not nice being put through the ringer like this," says Thomas Chipperfield. "You get looked at like you're a complete liar. I can't do anything right."

The youngest descendant in the Chipperfield line, a family that has been training animals in circuses since Charles II was on the throne, 29-year-old Thomas Chipperfield is something of an oddity in 2019: he is a lion tamer, unapologetically committed to the practice to which he has devoted his life. But his way of life is under threat: on the 24th of July this year, after years of government wrangling, a bill banning wild animals in circuses achieved royal assent. From January, if you operate a travelling circus, it will be illegal to use them.

Arranging an interview with Chipperfield is dramatic in itself. He meets me in a cafe in Oxford because he cannot tell me where he and his lions live. Being a lion tamer does not endear you to the public. People have messaged Chipperfield to tell him he will end up behind bars for what he does. Someone once said they would shoot him. Another threatened to burn his house down.

"These are the Twitter mob in real life," he says. "To an extent, you have to take these threats seriously." His neighbours received a message telling them their kids wouldn't make it home from school that day. It is principally for their sake that Chipperfield cannot show me his home. A journalist who visited him once published his address in a piece. He doesn't want to make that mistake again.

You might expect Chipperfield to be a man out of time – bullish and unwilling to listen to reason. He fits none of these descriptions. Some of his media appearances have done him few favours – a TV interview he began by trying to kiss one of his lions backfired when the lion didn't play ball – but in person his answers are thoughtful and eloquent, and he's apologetic when he feels he hasn't expressed himself clearly. He clearly harbours resentment towards animal rights activists, but if your life had been threatened by some, you might too.

Using animals in circuses is a subject on which the heart leads the mind. In 2019, it does feel instinctively wrong that lions should be driven around in lorries and wheeled out in order to perform tricks for baying crowds in big tops. PETA tell me, "It's absurd in this day and age that animals continue to be deprived of all that's natural and important to them and forced to perform tricks for human amusement," while the British Veterinary Association (BVA) add: "Ethical stances aside, you cannot meet the welfare needs of wild animals in a circus." The 658 experts who were consulted for the Wild Animals In Circuses (No.2) Bill concluded that a wild animal's life in a travelling circus does not appear to constitute "a life worth living".

However, look for expert support for the idea of animals in travelling circuses and you can find it easily. In 1990, one of the world's foremost animal behaviour experts, Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington, concluded that circuses by their nature do not cause suffering in animals. In 2007, the official BVA journal wrote that a government report on circus animals' welfare concluded that "there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments". Elsewhere, a team measuring the stress levels of lions being transported 800km through Germany concluded that the animals experienced no stress.

Chipperfield argues that this year's ban is "very much a solution in search of a problem". Along with veganism achieving a higher profile in recent decades, animal rights activists have become more vocal and more visible, and the majority of people feel that it is wrong for animals to be used in circuses. But what does "wrong" mean in this context? For his part, Chipperfield thinks the government is trying to "police taste".

It is impossible to be in Chipperfield's line of work legally and escape inspection. For many years, his lions and their enclosures were inspected by DEFRA and found to be up to scratch. In 2017, however, his application to use his animals in a travelling circus was refused – on grounds he still considers to be unclear. In 2018 he appealed that decision. Having had his leg broken after his horse Trojan fell on him, he couldn't afford to pay barristers so he represented himself. He swiftly realised why barristers are so well paid. "I'm not particularly frightened of people," he says, "but when I gave my closing statement my voice was trembling because of how much was at stake." He lost the appeal. He knew then that the bad press would come raining down on him.

This year's ban came as no surprise to Chipperfield; he can feel the world changing around him. Despite big hits like The Greatest Showman and Cirque Du Soleil, traditional circuses are less popular and dwindling in number. What surprised him was the way in which politicians justified their support for the ban. One MP said he supported the bill because he'd been to see Tim Burton's Dumbo. Lord Trees, a veterinary professor, said the ban could open the floodgates to a range of animal rights-based policies, none of which would benefit animals. But he wouldn't oppose the bill. "That's the behaviour of someone whose family is being held hostage," says Chipperfield. "It's like he's talking in code. What is going on?"

One of the trickiest aspects of reporting on Chipperfield is squaring his obvious love for his animals (as well as the two lions, he has one tiger, a macaw, a couple of lovebirds, two fur foxes, a retired working dog, a rescue parrot, ponies, a raccoon, an Asian palm civet, ponies, a horse and a skunk) with the supposedly harmful practices he supports. His earliest memories are of bottle-feeding tiger cubs with his parents. He has never known anything but the circus. "I always had a fascination with animals," he says. "I believe in what I do. It's really hard for me to come to terms with not being able to do what I do every day."

But those who wish to see an end to lions being used in circuses don't necessarily think someone like Chipperfield doesn't love his animals; they simply think that lions belong in the wild and that he is stopping them from being there.

I ask how he thinks PETA would react if they saw the way he looks after his lions. "When people are that entrenched in their ideology there's very little you can do to convince them," he says. Fond of quoting figures like Christopher Hitchens, Chipperfield is not swayed by consensus. When I ask what would change his mind, he says that a specialist would have to conduct a study with thorough parameters and be able to explain why their findings contradicted the findings of every other specialist who has observed his and his family's animals.

Not having a licence is "a black mark" on his reputation, he says, and he is currently seeking the advice of a solicitor on what to do next in terms of obtaining one. But given how things have panned out in the last few years, it is extremely difficult to imagine the mood shifting and his licence being granted. As Daniella Dos Santos, junior vice president of the BVA, says of the ban, "Times have moved on. Most members of the public had thought it had already gone through," adding, "A suitable environment for a lion is a pride area, where it can go out and hunt. Being confined to a cage, however big it is, is never going to be big enough."

As Chipperfield points out, this objection would also apply to zoos – but there is no similar push to ban zoos (though there may be in the years to come). Zoos are, in fact, becoming more like circuses as they schedule interactions with and performances from their animals. Chipperfield feels that the legislation is being administered inconsistently. He also points out that, if he were falling short of the requirements in the 2006 Animal Welfare Act – as the BVA imply that anyone keeping lions is – he would have been prosecuted at some point in the last six years.

It seems ironic that someone who devotes so much of his time to caring for his animals is the person castigated for being implicit in their abuse – and meeting Chipperfield has convinced me there aren't easy answers in cases people assume to be simple. He is almost certain to be the last Chipperfield to train lions in a circus – and perhaps this is a good thing. But pantomime villains are rarely as nasty as they're made out to be. Sometimes they may not even be villains at all.

@OhHiRalphJones

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