From inside the lions den

AS a self-confessed animal lover, I'll admit that I've always been sceptical of animal circuses.

But I was also eager to get a behind-the-scenes look at the Stardust Circus when it came to town recently, to properly form my opinion once and for all.

The circus staff were so accommodating of myself and photographer Carl Muxlow from the moment we arrived.

It's like one big happy, touring family and the love for one another clearly extends to their furry friends.

Head animal trainer Matt Smith, who grew up at Kew, has such an obvious passion for all the animals and the feelings are undoubtedly mutual.

Matt joined the circus when he was 17, having worked on a farm his whole life, and immediately began training with the animals.

"All my training has been hands-on really, just getting to know the animals individually and spending as much time with them as possible," he explained to me.

"You quickly get an understanding of what makes them tick, what they like or don't like and any warning signs that they've had enough."

Carl and I both jumped at the opportunity to join Matt inside the four lion cubs' enclosure before the show began and what an experience it was.

The cubs all playfully greeted Matt and rolled over for a scratch or a wrestle, while Carl and I were given the same greetings - much to our own surprise.

Aged between nine and 12 months, they are already bigger than your average labrador, with paws that they haven't yet grown into.

I'll admit that I was shaking while I was inside, and Matt enjoyed pointing out that all four could sense that I was scared, with one female cub deciding to capitalise on my fear, latching onto my legs repeatedly just to get a reaction.

The youngest male cub got a taste for the moisturiser on my legs and proceeded to lick it all off with his sandpaper tongue - it's very easy to see how they can skin an animal with their tongues in the wild.

All in all it was an amazing/terrifying experience and something that I would gladly do again.

The circus is regularly assessed by animal rights authorities to ensure that everything is up to standard and that all animals are being well looked after.

Stardust Circus has always satisfied all requirements and Matt said they always would.

"These animals are our family, they've been born and raised here, just like most of us," he said.

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