Big-cat trainer Martin Lacey Jr tells Douglas McPherson about winning the coveted Gold Clown at Monte Carlo’s International Circus Festival, accidents in the big top and the UK’s attitude to circus – including an upcoming change in legislation that will ban wild animals
The International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo is the Oscars of the big top. The glittering competition annually sees the world’s most spectacular acts perform in the presence of Prince Albert and Princess Stéphanie of Monaco.
This year’s highest award, the Clown d’Or or Gold Clown, was presented to British big-cat trainer Martin Lacey Jr and his uniquely large and fast-paced act featuring 23 lions and three tigers.
“It’s the dream of every circus artist just to appear at Monte Carlo,” says Lacey, who received a three-minute standing ovation for his performance. “What’s really amazing was that the jury said I deserved more than a Gold Clown. There’s no platinum clown, so they gave me an extra prize, a kind of Gold Clown-plus. That’s never happened before in 43 years of the festival.”
That Lacey’s achievement went almost completely ignored by the British media shows the differing attitudes to circus animals in the UK, where wild-animal acts have been all but legislated out of existence, and continental Europe where Lacey is star and director of the world’s biggest traditional circus – the Munich-based Circus Krone.
“When a Russian took home the Silver Clown he was greeted at the airport by television crews. He was treated like a king,” Lacey says. “I find it very sad that in England, where circus was invented 250 years ago, I can carry the British flag to Monte Carlo and The Stage is the only newspaper that wants to speak to me, because what I do is considered politically incorrect.”
Born in Sunderland, Lacey has sawdust in his blood. His father, Martin Sr, was a zookeeper who taught himself to train lions and went on to present big cats in Gerry Cottle’s Circus before founding his own Circus Harlequin and Great British Circus. Billed as ‘The Man Fear Forgot’, he also trained the tigers in the Esso adverts and was a regular animals presenter on educational TV show Magpie.
Lacey’s mother, Susan, presented tigers around the world and won a Silver Clown in Monte Carlo in 2005. Family photos show dad with his arm in a lion’s jaws, mum riding polar bears, and the children posing with elephants.
“My childhood was amazing because we were brought up with so many animals,” says Lacey. “I didn’t decide to be a lion trainer, it just came naturally. I guess when you love what you do, you become good at it because you don’t care about the long hours or how hard it is.”
Lacey and his older brother Alex, who is also a big-cat trainer, went to boarding school while their parents travelled with the circus. Another brother became a psychologist. “But Alex and I missed the animals, so we came back to work with them.”
The brothers grew up in an era when Britain’s circuses were coming under attack from animal rights protestors. “I remember being a child of six or seven years old, having stones thrown at us and adults swearing at us,” says Lacey.
To pursue their vocation, he and Alex headed abroad. “We wanted a taste of the real circus which, sadly, people of my generation have never seen in England.” Alex went on to present big cats in the US with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus until it ceased operations, after 146 years, in 2017. He’s currently touring Germany with Circus Charles Knie.
Lacey joined a French circus where his fast-moving act with a lion and nine lionesses was spotted by a scout for the International Circus Festival. Lacey’s first appearance in Monte Carlo, in 2000, won him a Silver Clown and he was promptly recruited by Germany’s Circus Krone.
Lacey went on to marry Jana Mandana Krone, the adoptive daughter of circus matriarch Christel Sembach-Krone and a horse and elephant trainer. Since Sembach-Krone’s death in 2017, Lacey and his wife have run Europe’s largest circus together. Their menagerie includes five elephants and 40 horses, and they employ more than 200 people.
The circus is based in one of Munich’s most famous venues, the Circus Krone Building, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. “The Beatles and the Rolling Stones played here,” Martin says of the 3,000-seat venue, which hosts the circus in winter and concerts during the summer, when the circus tours in a 5,000-seat tent.
What was your first non-circus job?
What was your first professional circus job?
Presenting camels on Circus Harlequin.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I always say: ‘If I knew then what I know now…’
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My older brother Alex, my father Martin Lacey and mother Susan Lacey.
What’s your best advice for becoming an animal trainer?
Put the animals first. My mum and dad always told me to respect the animals, always take care of them and love them. That’s our family code.
If you hadn’t been a big-cat tamer, what would you have been?
I was a boxer at school, but my dad said it was too dangerous – stick to lions.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’m very superstitious and observe a lot of traditional circus superstitions, like not sitting on the ring box with your back to the ring.
The circus also has a farm in Wessling where Martin’s mother looks after the show’s retired animals, including Germany’s oldest hippo, who is more than 50 years old. “We look after our animals in their later years,” Lacey says. “In the wild, 11 years old is a good age for a lion. In zoos and circuses they live to 16 or 17. In our family it’s over 20. Last year I lost the grandmother of my current lions. She was 28 years old.” He says the animals are not from the wild, but are offspring of their “extended cat family”.
In the spotlight, Lacey’s lion King Tonga sprawls on the sawdust and Martin lays on top of him as if the 350kg predator were as harmless as a lion-skin rug. In a comedic sequence, he sits and chats with a lioness who refuses to leave her pedestal.
The close contact belies the danger of working with the beasts that Lacey describes as the perfect killing machines.
“No one in my family has ever been attacked,” he states. “Have we had accidents? Yes. The biggest accident I had was when I tripped over and fell against a lion’s shoulder. He turned around and bit my face, broke my nose and cut my jaw open. I was in a bad state and needed surgery, but it wasn’t an attack. If he’d attacked me, I wouldn’t be here. It was just his way of saying: ‘Watch where you’re going.’”
Returning to the ring after his injury was “very emotional”, Lacey says. “When I got out of hospital I looked like the Michelin Man because my face was so swollen, but at the end of the show I kissed that lion’s lips, because it wasn’t his fault, it was mine.”
While the use of circus animals is often criticised, Lacey points to Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s RSPCA-funded 18-month study in the 1980s, which found animals fared well in the big top and benefited from the stimulation of training. The UK government’s Radford Report in 2007 also found no issue with welfare standards in circuses.
“I give my life to my animals,” Lacey says. “They’re my family and to be told by animal rights companies that I’m cruel to them hurts me. But I sleep very well, because I know my animals get everything they need and more.”
He’s only too aware, however, that objections to his profession persist, particularly in his homeland. He could apply for a licence to tour in England until the change in legislation, which bans wild animals in circuses, in 2020. Currently the UK has only two circuses licensed for wild animals – Peter Jolly’s Circus and Circus Mondao – which have camels, snakes and zebras but no big cats. The last big-cat act in Britain was Thomas Chipperfield’s An Evening with Lions and Tigers, which toured Wales in 2015.
Asked whether he will bring his show to the UK, Lacey says: “I would love to and I know the general British public would love it, because we get so many tourists who come to Germany and say: ‘Why can’t we see this at home?’ But it would need the support of the media and the BBC, Sky News and a lot of the newspapers would not make life easy.”
The best he can promise UK fans is to make his gold-winning Monte Carlo show available online later this year.
“It’s the show that the ill-informed politicians and media should see,” the lion trainer concludes. “We often get sceptics come along but once they see the show they always change their minds.”
Born: Sunderland, 1977
Training: On the job at Circus Harlequin
• Circus Harlequin
• Circus Krone
• Gold Clown, International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo (2010, 2018); Silver Clown (2005)
• Gold Star, International Circus Festival, Grenoble (2004)
• Golden Crystal, Animal Trainer Circus Festival, Massy (1999)
For more go to: laceys-lions.de