The day lions roamed the streets

Plaque project leader Clare Blackmore and 1978 circus spectator Eileen Grant look back on the...
Plaque project leader Clare Blackmore and 1978 circus spectator Eileen Grant look back on the circus lion escape in Lawrence, 40 years ago yesterday. Photo: Tom Kitchin
Forty years ago, escaped circus lions roamed the streets of Lawrence.

Yesterday, the community officially commemorated the spectacle, installing a plaque at the fields where it began.

When Carlos’ Circus came to Lawrence on Thursday, March 30, 1978, it set up show on Simpson Park.

Rugby teams were training on the other side of the park.

Before the show was about to start and as the rugby players were warming up, three circus lions escaped from their pen in the circus tent and started pacing up and down the park.

Geoff Blackmore, who was on the field training for junior rugby at the time, remembers it well.

"It certainly was a bit of a sensation to think that the king of the jungle, the man-eating lion, was out."

The lions did not attack the rugby players but caused commotion.

"There was mad panic as we realised what they actually were, loose and not under control, so everyone sprinted off the field into their cars."

Young lioness Suzy is soothed by lion tamer Anton Prosk  (left) and Russell Harris after she was...
Young lioness Suzy is soothed by lion tamer Anton Prosk (left) and Russell Harris after she was returned to her cage during the escape in 1978. Photo: ODT
Circus patrons David and Eileen Grant, who arrived to watch the circus with their children Craig and Lisa, may have had the biggest fright of all.

"We were sitting, waiting for it to start ...   then it was announced that we were to come out of our seats and walk quietly back to our vehicles.

"We were just in a line like everybody else and all of a sudden [a lion] jumped over us and threw Craig and myself to the ground.

"When we picked Craig up he had this dreadful gash just under his eye."

Craig, who was 6 at the time, was rushed to Dunedin Hospital by ambulance and needed 30 stitches on his face. His  scar lasted for years but was fading now, Mrs Grant said.

Police tried to tranquillise the lions but were unsuccessful and had to shoot two of the animals while the third was quickly recaptured. 

The community paid for the lions to be stuffed.

They were taken to Otago Museum and  are still on display  in the museum’s Animal Attic.

Clare Blackmore, who led the plaque project,  was not at Simpson Park on the night, but lived in Lawrence at the time.

A teacher at Waitahuna School, she  wrote and illustrated a book called The Lawrence Lions, published in 2012.

After the book came out, she decided to create a plaque to commemorate 40 years since the event.

"Just to make a permanent reminder for history’s sake. It’s an intriguing story to tell [children]  lions were once here on the field they play rugby on."

The plaque was made by John Swan in Dunedin.

The spectacle meant Lawrence had a unique story to tell,  Geoff Blackmore said.

"I don’t think there’s many towns in New Zealand that can claim they’ve had live lions roaming the streets."

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