Egypt’s Dynasty of Big Cat Trainers Creates New Show at Home

At his Cairo apartment, located just off a busy road along the Nile River, Ashraf el-Helw, a third-generation Egyptian lion trainer, prepares for a show with his big cats.

Instead of a circus ring, his living room is his stage. He has already posted one online video of the lions performing tricks inside his home since Egypt imposed restrictions to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, including a nightly curfew.

He is now getting ready to film the second one and says more are in the works, claiming he wants to encourage people to stay at home amid the pandemic. The first video received rave responses from Egyptians on social media — but also raised questions over how the country’s most famous lion-training family treats its animals.

The el-Helws have been doing circus shows with the big cats for over a century. Ashraf’s grandmother was a renowned circus performer, Mahassen el-Helw, the Arab world’s first female lion trainer. She was known as “the iron woman” for her stern stage demeanor.

There has also been tragedy. Ashraf’s grandfather, Mohammed el-Helw, was killed in 1972 during one of his shows by Sultan, a lion who tore him to pieces before the eyes of a horrified, helpless public. There have also been reported incidents of several other family members being attacked during shows in recent years.

Some have criticized the el-Helws for their treatment of the animals. Dina Zulfikar, an animal rights activist who sits on the board of the country’s largest zoo, said that bringing wild animals into private homes is against the law. Also, Ashraf el-Helw’s social media videos give a skewed picture of the danger big cats pose, she said. But for the el-Helw family, the lions are both a livelihood and a family constant.