It’s not every day that you see a lion roaming the streets. I’m sure if you were to see one, you may be confused and, dare I say, terrified. And that’s precisely what happened to the residents of the seaside town of Ladispoli on the evening of November 12, when a lion escaped from a nearby circus.
Eight-year-old Kimba went for a walk through the streets of Ladispoli, a town just west of Rome, and was completely unperturbed by the cameras filming him or the people yelling “mamma mia” and “get in your car”. Locals were told to stay inside for several hours while the police, vets, and circus staff tracked him down and sedated him.
The heroic marksman of the hour, 38-year-old Raffaele Bisegna, said on TV: “I approached the lion 35 metres away and fired the shot. When the lion saw me it roared and tried to escape. I hit it while it was moving, on the back. This type of hit is only given in extreme cases, but we had no other chance.” Fortunately, Kimba wasn’t badly hurt.
“What do they mean there’s a lion on the loose?” my partner asked when the story appeared on the news. “Do we really use them for performing?”
Friends and colleagues were also shocked – everyone was talking about Kimba. People were arguing about him on the metro, he came up in the family WhatsApp chat, and I even debated the use of circus animals in my Italian class.
A recent survey found that 76% of Italians were against using animals in circuses and that 79% also opposed using public funds to support circuses using animals. In May 2023, €8.6m was given to circus activities (including those involving animals) by the National Fund for Live Entertainment (Fondo Nazionale per lo spettacolo dal vivo), which is controlled by the Ministry of Culture.
In 2021 the previous culture minister, Dario Franceschini, put €11m into the fund and justified it by saying the industry was suffering due to the Covid pandemic.
The animal rights group OIPA said that the escape highlighted the discomfort of creatures forced into captivity for entertainment. Furthermore, the campaign group LAV has estimated that 2,000 animals are held in circuses across Italy. Kimba was the fifth escapee in the country this year.
LAV called on Giorgia Meloni and the culture minister, Gennaro Sanguiliano, to take action. They also questioned why the law on limiting the use of animals for entertainment, which was drafted last year, was not tabled until 2024.
Kimba is not the only animal in this family-run circus. He was only one of the nine big cats performing alongside elephants, camels, and bison. The animal handler, Rony Vassallo, said his critics “don’t know the reality, how animals are treated in circuses, or the checks that are carried out”. He also believes someone broke into Kimba’s cage to set him free. As a result of this claim, an investigation is now being carried out.
Whether or not Kimba was set free by someone, or if he is well looked after, one question remains – what is the benefit of animal performers in circuses? They are expensive, they may pose a danger to nearby communities, and people would still go to see shows if they didn’t use animal performers. Perhaps Italy should follow the other 20 European countries that have banned such performances, before we see another lion on the loose.