It's the end of an era for Australia's last circus lion trainer Matthew Ezekial, as he settles his pride of six African lions into an early retirement.
It's a heart breaking final act for the Stardust Circus clown and lion trainer of 20 years, as the much loved carnivores are moved permanently to Central Coast Zoo in Wyong Creek on NSW's Central Coast.
The three male and three female lions are the final pride of 25 generations born in Australia.
The tearful farewell has been prompted by a shutdown of the circus for more than three months during the spread of COVID-19 in NSW, and difficulty securing insurance for the exotic animals.
"It has been pretty hard to make the decision but they are in a good place now, which makes it easier. It's been 10 years with those lions and we didn't even get to do a final goodbye show with them," Mr Ezekial said.
"It's heartbreaking to be the last lion trainer because I wanted my (four) children to do it and they won't get a chance now. It's the end of an era and 100 years of tradition that has finished forever.
"Everything gets outdated eventually and we had already decided this would be our last lot of lions. It was just a lot sooner than we thought it would be.
"I'm proud to have been a lion trainer but I'm sad it didn't last."
Stardust Circus has traditionally travelled across NSW and is expected to return to Sydney for shows in two weeks time.
The circus is operated by Janice and Lindsay Lennon, along with five brothers and sisters from the West circus family. It features a range of acrobats, clowns, trapeze acts, springboard, aerialists, ponies, goats, dogs and pigs.
Mr Ezekial was originally from Port Macquarie on the NSW North Coast before moving from the area at the age of 10. He joined the circus as a tent hand at age 17 and was later introduced to the lions by former trainer Glenn West.
Over the next few months he will train a keeper at the Central Coast Zoo to replace his daily interactions with the animals.
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"Having that bond with a lion is about trust, they trust you and you trust them. I have hundreds of memories with them and I miss them already," he said.
"Working with them has been challenging at times but they are quite affectionate. They show you when they are happy and when they're not.
"It's pretty special to be allowed to play with them because they could kill you in a heartbeat if they wanted to.
"It's an easy experience at the zoo for them because everything is new. I'm here to keep them busy for a bit and hopefully train someone else to do what I do."
Animal welfare groups including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the RSPCA have previously campaigned directly against Stardust Circus and its use of acts involving animals.
An RSPCA statement labelled the rehousing of the lions as a "significant win for animal welfare in Australia", while a statement from PETA called for an official ban on wild animals in travelling circuses.
A petition was created to stop animal performances at the circus in Port Macquarie in 2016 and collected 1913 supporters.
Mr Ezekial maintains the animals are well cared for, loved and want for nothing.
"We get bad press but it's unwarranted and those people have never watched the show or watched me training with the lions. They've just heard something bad or seen circus footage from overseas," he said.
"We have always done the best we can for our animals with better yards than required, food, water, air conditioning and heating. They would never have a want for anything."
"The lions sleep during the day while we were traveling and wake up in a new enrichment place of new sights, sounds and smells," he said.
"They would often run around for half an hour and then go straight back to sleep. They always liked doing the show because they were given treats such as chicken, beef or horse.
"The lions brought excitement to regional towns where people could see them playing and jumping around for the first time."
Four rhesus macaque monkeys from the circus are also in the process of being rehomed to a private monkey retirement place.
"We do have to rehome Millie, Chloe, Goldie and Buttons as well, they were my wife's monkeys and she is also heartbroken," Mr Ezekial said.
"It's going to be hard, but we adapt and we still put on a good show no matter what."