A Lion Escaped the Big Top for a 5-Hour Roman Holiday. Animal Activists are Roaring.

| Thu, 11/16/2023 - 11:00
Lion fountain

On November 12, residents of Ladispoli, a small community within the greater metropolitan area of Rome, were warned to stay indoors as an escaped circus lion wandered the streets of their seaport town. 

Home videos across social media showed an adult lion casually strolling up and down deserted roads, stopping traffic, and generally causing concern and fear among onlookers. 

The eight-year-old lion, named Kimba, had escaped from his cage on the grounds of the Rony Roller circus — a family-owned traveling troupe that had been performing in the area. 

Manager and handler Rony Vassallo told the Agence France-Presse that Kimba posed no danger to the public, claiming that the lion, born and raised in captivity, didn’t have the instinct for attack. (Experts agree that wild animals — whether lions, tigers or bears — can never be fully domesticated.)

Kimba was tranquilized and secured after a five-hour-plus cat hunt. According to reports, the lion awoke shortly after his capture and was examined by a veterinarian, showing no signs of injury or negative effects from his afternoon passeggiata. 

The “mane” concerns

The incident sparked renewed calls for an end to the confinement and exploitation of circus animals in Italy.

An estimated 2,000 animals are currently used in circuses around the country, according to both the Ente Nazionale per la Protezione degli Animali, Italy’s national board for animal protection, and the LAV, another prominent animal rights campaign group based in Rome.

Circus activities in Italy are publicly financed by the Ministry of Culture through the Fondo nazionale per lo spettacolo dal vivo (National Fund for Live Entertainment). As recently as May 2023, the ministry allocated €8.6 million euro to circus activities and “itinerant shows,” including but not limited to those involving animals. 

“Circuses have no educational value,” ENPA representative Andrea Brutti argued in an email to Italy Magazine. “It is sad to see the lion, as well as other animals, completely alienated, forced to live in cages, often alone, and undergo training to perform shows for a paying audience.” 

One September 2023 survey by market research firm DOXA (commissioned by LAV) indicated that 76% of Italians are either “somewhat or very against” the use of animals in circuses, and that 79% oppose the use of public funds to support circuses with animals.

And despite the 80% of survey respondents who said they would still attend a circus that didn’t include animal performers, the Italian big-top business, with or without flashy creatures, is on thin ice. In 2021, the former Culture Minister Dario Franceschini allocated €11 million to what he called an “industry suffering enormously” due to pandemic-related challenges. 

But some argue that the suffering of animals is greater.

“[What happened in Ladispoli] is not an isolated incident,” Brutti told Italy Magazine. “It’s the umpteenth escape of an animal in Italy, even just within the province of Rome…elephants, lions, tigers, bulls, llamas, birds and so on. Sometimes the creatures involved have even been put down.” 

LAV representatives said in a press release that the Ladispoli incident was the fifth time in the past year that a circus animal had escaped in Italy, and called on Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano to take swift action. (A law that would limit the use of animals for entertainment purposes was drafted in 2022, but its implementation was tabled until 2024 earlier this year.)

Mayor of Ladispoli Alessandro Grando told the Agence France-Presse that he did not authorize the permit for the circus to come to town, but had no authority to prevent it. “I hope that this episode can stir some consciences, and that we can finally put an end to the exploitation of animals in circuses,” Grando said.