Come to the circus - you’ll have a really wild time

Circus ringmistress Petra Jackson and Cinzia Timmis
Circus ringmistress Petra Jackson and Cinzia Timmis
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Now here’s something you don’t see every day. Zebra - rather like civil servants - tend to be thin on the ground at Norcross.

Here it’s a customary sight at least once a year. That’s the zebra. Arguably cutbacks have made civil servants a more endangered species locally.

But time could be running out for traditional travelling circuses such as this.

Circus Mondao is one of the few touring circuses to still feature wild animals.

Zebra, camels, reindeer. In twos, like Noah’s Ark. “Not wild animals,” stresses ringmaster Petra Jackson, “not as most would consider them – lions, tigers.”

It’s an argument which doesn’t wash with animal rights campaigners, such as the Captive Animal Society and Animal Defenders International.

High-profile incidences of abuse, such as the ill-treatment of performing elephant Anne by Bobby Roberts Super Circus staff in 2011, prompted the Government to draft legislation to remove wild animals from circuses.

The proposed bill, published in April, would outlaw the use of species not normally domesticated in the UK in travelling circuses after December 2015.

Anne McIntosh, who chairs the government committee scrutinising the draft legislation, says: “We believe that there should be a ban on big cat species and elephants, but it is possible to argue that camels, zebra or snakes can continue to have a place in the travelling circus.”

She also maintains that animals such as zebras and camels still used in travelling circuses are regulated by strict licencing to protect their welfare.

But ADI president Jan Creamer says the key issue is “animals are constantly travelling and they’re in a poor environment and in restricted space, and that goes for the camels, the zebras and other animals as much as for the elephants and lions and tigers.”

Ringmaster Petra reckons otherwise. The Oxford Oriel College mathematician who ran away to join the circus because she wanted to “work with animals” adds: “Circuses are being scapegoated. Do people protest at pet dogs kept in all day except for a bit of exercise in the garden? Or a race horse goes from stables to exercise yard between races and barely gets to see grass let alone graze? They should see the bigger picture. Our animals are our family. They are loved and cared for and come first.”

Petra and circus boss Gracie Timmis turned up at court when veteran circus owner Roberts and his wife Moira denied causing unnecessary suffering and failing to prevent an employee from repeatedly beating an elephant.

Mrs Roberts was cleared of all offences. Her husband was found guilty. The employee filmed beating the elephant vanished soon after the scenes were shot. As Moira told me when the circus toured last year: “I will never forgive myself for giving him a job. It was the first time my judgement let me down.”

It cost the family dearly. The Bobby Roberts Super Circus is not touring this year.

Petra says many circus folk stayed clear of the court case.

“We wanted to go and show solidarity. Later they thanked us. They are a lovely couple.”

Gracie admits she doesn’t know what the future holds: “A circus isn’t a circus without animals.”

Opposite the circus site on Norcross Lane building workers gaze down upon grazing Bactrian (two humps!) camels and free range zebra. It’s a surreal sight and so far, “touch wood” says Gracie, the only complaint has come from neighbours who miss the camels grazing at the end of their garden.

“This year the farmer has left his cows in that field - and camels and cows don’t mix,” adds Gracie. “So the camels are in the upper field. The neighbours miss them.”

The circus, any circus, coming to town tends to provide extremes of emotion. Excitement at the sight of the big top marquee going up, or annoyance, even outright antagonism, in animal welfare ranks.

But few are indifferent to the appeal of a spectacle which is part of social history like the travelling fairs which are also finding it harder to get council sites. Like the travelling fairs, circuses tend to rely on private land for pitches.

There’s plenty of interest, much of it passing, with motorists craning for a closer look or children clamouring to park up, but how many will turn into paying punters over the next fortnight - with shows twice daily?

Tickets start at £10 for children (up to 16) and £14 for adults but even on cut price (£5.99) Tuesdays some get “narked” as Gracie puts it when they can’t get a further discount. And it’s cash only.

The circus is on twice weekdays 5pm and 7.30pm, 2pm and 5pm Saturdays, 2pm on Sundays - no performance this coming Monday - until Bank Holiday Monday August 26 (when it wraps up after a final performance at 2pm ).

Mondao is on tour from February half term to November 3 when it returns to over winter in Lincolnshire.

“We usually put some pantos on too,” says Gracie.

The rising cost of diesel hasn’t helped but good weather - and support of regulars - has seen the season pick up nicely.

“We mostly get locals here, not holidaymakers. We’ve cut our stay down to two weeks not six as we reckon we’ll get the same business through in the more concentrated period.”

Gracie and sister Carol set up Circus Mondao when they settled down from travelling the world as circus artistes.

Gracie has quit the high wire of old in favour of - pigeons. She has 20 officially but it looks more like 40 as she adopts many.

“Once you can get them to sit on your hand you can train them to do anything,” she adds. And even pigeons run away to the circus. “We have one who drops in whenever we stop here,” she adds. “We feed him, he has a good look round and flies off.”

Her caravan overlooks “the best view of all” - right down to the entrance of the big top.

Her daughters Cinzia, 13 and Madalane, 17, are putting their beautiful Andelucian and Appaloosa horses through their paces within. The girls have grown up in the circus and on the road.

Madalane has left school but Cinzia attends schools along the route - and is enjoying the long summer holidays with a friend Victoria along for the ride too.

Each year the girls acquire new circus skills, riding, aerial artistry (Grace’s former speciality), hula hoops, silks and more.

It’s a family circus and that extends to the animals.

“They are family - we would never mistreat them,” says Gracie.

The zebra are in their late 20s, far older than they would live in the wild ... or even in captivity in many zoos.

Petra says the animals enjoy the stimulus of life on the road.

“They know when it’s moving on day. They get excited. We have no trouble loading them. They want to be off to the next place. New grass, sights, sounds, smells.”

But Petra will be sad to leave Blackpool. “It’s a circus town. No doubt about it. It has real history here, we get a lot of visits from circus folk, families who have settled here. I always love to see some shows here myself.”

Gracie concludes: “I think that’s why we were so appalled that Charlie Cairole’s statue should be vandalised here, in Blackpool of all places.

“Charlie Junior regularly comes to see us. It should never have been left in a park.

“The Tower was Charlie’s home. ”