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Lion Trainer's bravery felt by the children who watch

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-03-20

He is fearless. He is daring. He is brave. He leaves children in their seats with faces of excitement. He is the Lion Trainer.

Most of us have been to the circus at one time or another as a child. The circus has always intrigued children of all ages, and has pulled at the souls of the adventurous. The phrase "Run away and join the circus," became a romantic ideal that represented the ultimate freedom. Clowns, trapeze performers, and tight rope walkers all conjure up images of circus life. Within the cast of characters, the lion trainer has always captured our attention, and his performance has always been one of the main attractions.

Emile Smith and his assistant Sarah live that role everyday with the Kinoshita Circus. Smith walks into a cage with several African lions and lioness' surrounding him in all directions. He is alone, but he is in control. The large cats follow his commands as the audience sits in bewilderment over their awesome beauty. One lion lets out a roar, showing his huge teeth. The sound alone would send anyone else running to the door, but Smith keeps his stance and continues his act. Another cat decides not to move and has to be enticed by Smith. A large paw, capable of ripping open flesh and knocking him down easily, slashes through the air. Smith gets the lion to move with the rest, and the tense audience relaxes a little. The lions perform a series of acrobatic jumps and other maneuvers, and the crowd responds. You begin to sense that Smith is not just in control, but that he is actually working with the cats, together with mutual respect. However, Smith must always be conscious of the fact that he can get seriously injured, and so must Sarah. She is his second set of eyes watching his back, and letting him know if any of the cats are not where they should be.

Smith, who is from England, was born into the circus. His parents were also respected animal trainers. Tigers, leopards, and alligators are some of the other animals that Smith has worked with during his lifelong career in the circus. Smith has always loved working with animals, and he describes his profession by saying, "I'm a lucky man. I'm doing a job I love doing. I have no interest in doing anything else, and I wouldn't do anything differently." Smith even fits the image of a lion trainer with a British accent and a thin mustache. He is also very concerned when it comes to the welfare of the circus animals. "We give the lions a chance to run and leap during training, which they would be doing in the wild. We also take care of them constantly. I look at them as my working partners and with a lot of respect."

"The public doesn't get to see the back side of the circus. Our animals have a lot of freedom to roam. We're always around the animals. We're also responsible for feeding them and cleaning them. It's like having 20 kids," further explained Sarah. The native of Switzerland met Smith five years ago and they have been working together ever since. Their show also includes zebras and a beautiful giraffe named Masai.

Both Smith and Sarah are enjoying their tour with the Kinoshita Circus, and especially like Okinawa. "We'd like to see some of the island, and get to know the local people," said Smith. "I'm really interested in Okinawa," added Sarah. They also both agreed that the audiences here on Okinawa have responded nicely. "It's one of the best audiences we've had while in Japan," explained Smith.

Their show can be seen everyday here on Okinawa, except Thursday until April 13. The circus is located in Naha, at the old Makiminato housing area across from the Ekka Hotel. Call 934-5738 for ticket information.

The affect of the couple's exciting and enjoyable performance sometimes can go beyond the big circus tent. Sarah explained a situation that happened while the circus was in Kyoto. "There was a little 6 year old girl that was being bullied at school. She came to the circus and really admired Emile's courage in the cage, which helped her to get over her fear in school. We received flowers and a letter from her explaining her story, and it really made us feel good." Smith was very moved by the little girl's story and he treasures the letter he received from her. The incident really shows that the spirit of the circus is reflected on the faces of the children, who come to watch. And, the lion trainer shall always be fearless in the hearts of those children.

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