In his Cairo living room, Egyptian Ashraf al-Helw reprimanded his lioness Joumana for not obeying him after bringing her home for live-streamed performances during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am very unhappy with you Jojo,” the 26-year-old lion tamer yelled at the lioness, who returned to her stool before snatching a piece of raw meat from a nearby table.
Since March, Cairo has closed entertainment facilities, including the circus, in a bid to contain the outbreak — forcing the famous Helw family of big cat trainers into a rethink.
Ashraf has decided to bring the lioness home for a few hours twice a week.
Thousands of viewers confined to their homes watched Joumana’s first online show last month on Instagram and Facebook.
The family now hopes to use the videos to claw back lost revenue to cover their 30 assistants’ salaries and feed their 40 lions and tigers.
“Business has always gone well in Egypt, especially as people here love the circus,” said Ashraf. “But everything has come to a halt since the coronavirus.”
– No swipes from neighbours –
Ashraf is a third-generation lion tamer and says his grandmother Mahasen was wildly popular – known as “the iron lady” for being the first Arab and Middle Eastern woman to tame big cats.
In 1978, his grandfather Mohamed al-Helw was mauled to death by a lion during a live show.
But this did not dissuade his descendants from continuing the family business.
Three of Ashraf’s sisters and one brother are also big cat trainers.
“This is the first time that I have brought a big lion home,” said Ashraf, who normally only brings cubs back to his pad. “I only brought Joumana here to entertain people.”
Currently Ashraf brings Joumana home twice a week for training, transporting her in a metal cage in the back of an SUV. The rest of the time she lives in a park outside Cairo.
Upon her arrival, the family and assistants block the staircase as the lioness is led into the elevator.
“The neighbours never had problems with us, they trust us,” said Ashraf.
Hussein Suleiman, the building’s security chief, said there had been “no complaints” from the neighbours.
“The family is lovely and people like to take photos when they see the lioness passing by.”
After videos of Joumana performing at home went viral, some on social media voiced fears over possible animal mistreatment.
But Ashraf, who first publicly performed with lions at the age of 15, dismissed such charges as “false”.
Meanwhile, even younger members of the Helw family are planning to one day crack the whip.
“I will start training (with lions) as soon as I finish my studies,” said 20-year-old Karim, a business school student and the youngest of Ashraf’s brothers.