Lion trainer brings big cats into living room amid lockdown

1 May 2020, 14:32

Posted by Ashraf Elhelw on Monday, 20 April 2020
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A locked-down lion trainer has brought his big cats into his home for online shows to encourage people to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ashraf el-Helw, who lives along the River Nile in the Egyptian capital Cairo, has converted his living room into a lair for his lions.

Usually kept on a farm about an hour outside of the city, Mr el-Helw normally brings the lions into Cairo for his shoots.

But since Egpy brought in social restrictions, including a nightly curfew, to limit the spread of coronavirus, the lion trainer has been forced to adapt.

The 26-year-old, third-generation big cat trainer and circus operator has already posted one video on social media showing his lions performing tricks indoors.

Ashraf el-Helw (second-right) with five-year-old African lion Joumana
Ashraf el-Helw (second-right) with five-year-old African lion Joumana. Picture: PA

He is now preparing to film a second and has plans for many more.

After receiving a wave of positive comments on the initial Facebook video, Mr el-Helw hopes his shows will ensure people remain at home during the outbreak.

However, the video also raised concerns from some users who worry about how the country's most famous lion training family treats the animals in its circus.

Dina Zulfikar, an animal rights activist who sits on the board of the country's largest zoo, said that bringing wild animals into private homes is against the law.

"This is irresponsible and foolish behaviour," she added.

"They are not pets, they are wild animals."

Ms Zulfikar added that the social media videos also give a skewed picture of the danger big cats pose.

Joumana and Mr el-Helw join together in a dance
Joumana and Mr el-Helw join together in a dance. Picture: PA

Mr el-Helw keeps about 40 animals on his farm, including monkeys and other large cats, and was pictured doing tricks with his five-year-old African lioness Joumana.

In the footage, the lion trainer can be seen dancing with Joumana, getting her to walk across a plank, and getting the lioness to eat meat hanging from a stick held in his mouth.

"Since I opened my eyes to the world, I found lions around me," said the 26-year-old.

He added he began to work with the animals, alongside his older siblings, when he was six years old and 16 he was doing performances.

The el-Helw family has been putting on circus shows with big cats for over a century. Mr el-Helw's grandmother Mahassen el-Helw, also known as "the iron woman", was a renowned circus performer and the Arab world's first female lion trainer.

However, there have also been tragedies, including Mr el-Helw's grandfather, Mohammed el-Helw, who was killed in 1972 during one of his shows by a lion named Sultan who tore him to pieces before the eyes of a horrified, helpless public.

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

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

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