A great yarn is still a great yarn even years after the event, and the day three circus lions made their waterfront escape in Rotorua is one of the best.

Kent Briggs was an excitable 7-year-old on that day in January 1986 when he and his older brother Gareth, aged 10 at the time, made their way to the Whirling Bros Circus big top that had been erected on Rotorua's Lakefront.

The circus was in town and it was the brothers' first unsupervised expedition.

"We were at my mother's fashion store Shim Sham, when we heard the circus poodle had gone missing," Briggs said. "With permission, we walked to the Lakefront and bought our tickets and got ready to enjoy the show."

Kent Briggs, left, and his brother Gareth were at the circus when the lions escaped in Rotorua in 1986. Kent is making a documentary about that day. Photo/Ben Fraser
Kent Briggs, left, and his brother Gareth were at the circus when the lions escaped in Rotorua in 1986. Kent is making a documentary about that day. Photo/Ben Fraser

Briggs said it was business as usual until the lions appeared.

"All three of the lions seemed a bit agitated throughout their performance but it was right at the finale, the bit where they run around the cage before leaving the ring, that one of them nudged the cage door and it popped open."

He said the lions ran in all directions with one making a beeline for the tent wall that tore as it made its escape.

"As always there were quite a few kids watching the show by peeping up from underneath the tent walls and I remember them scattering as fast as the lions had."

Briggs said circus-goers were asked to remain in their seats while circus staff clutching a whole lot of lion-catching equipment, left the big top.

The Rotorua Daily Post article about the escape in 1986. Photo/File
The Rotorua Daily Post article about the escape in 1986. Photo/File

After five to 10 minutes, the audience was instructed to exit the tent in an orderly fashion, Briggs said.

"I remember asking Gareth what we should do before we basically sprinted the three or four blocks back to our mother's shop.

"I don't think I've ever run so fast. The entire way I was expecting a lion to jump out from behind something and eat me."


Briggs is back in Rotorua and re-creating events of that day by interviewing people who were there.

His interviews include Whirling Bros owner and ringmaster Tony Ratcliffe, police officer Mike Keefe who, on the day, sat on the roof of the QE building with rifle in hand, other circus-goers and media people who covered events as they unfolded.

"Since then we've been told the missing poodle, who belonged to Ratcliffe's partner at the time, was put into the lion's cage before their performance which may have rattled them," Briggs said.

"Ratcliffe was told some street kids had been seen tampering with the lion's cage."

He said Ratcliffe's partner, who Briggs is trying to locate for the documentary, had crawled under the QE building to try and get one of the escaped lions out into the open while Ratcliffe waited on the other side of the structure.

"It really is a cracking yarn, even after all this time, and I hope to capture a little bit of the day."

As well as Ratcliffe's partner, Briggs is seeking two boys who were riding BMX bikes on the day and tried to round up the lions.

"In addition, if anyone has any photographs or amateur video of events of the day, I would absolutely appreciate hearing from them."

Rotorua arms officer Mike Keefe said he remembered the day like it was yesterday.

"It was like a scene from Keystone cops, there were people and police officers running everywhere. But then again you don't really have a contingency plan for lions on the loose."

Keefe was photographed by the Rotorua Daily Post photographer sitting atop a water tank at the QE building with rifle in hand.

"I did have one of the lions lined up at the time but there was a chap running behind it saying don't shoot, it doesn't have any teeth. I said it's got [expletive] claws though."

Keefe said if he had a 303 at the time he possibly would have shot the animal.

"Instead I had a firearm I wasn't that familiar with and one I didn't have a lot of faith in. Unless I'd hit the animal front and centre it probably would have ended up wounded and angry."

He said the lions were on the loose for about 35 to 45 minutes but believed they were tame enough to be coaxed back into their cages.

"There was a conspiracy Krusty the Clown was responsible. Actually, I don't know if the clown was called Krusty but there was talk he was involved.

"As well as the incident with the poodle, a couple of other things had happened while the circus was touring."

Keefe said it was a day he would never forget.

Also called in to help on the day was Dave Donaldson who, at the time, was a sergeant, and was stationed on the bottom floor of the Denbies building.

"Everyone was scrambling to the Lakefront when the lions got out.

"There are two things that stick in my mind from that day. The first is Constable Theo Bolstad zooming his patrol car across the Village Green in pursuit of a lion and the second was waiting outside the QE Hospital for a lion to come out from underneath the building."

He said Bolstad was trying to "run interference" with the lion as the Village Green was full of people enjoying their summer holiday.

"I remember the lion brushing up against the car and doing a somersault through the air.

"Apparently it has come to light that one of the police crashed their car into a tree during the incident and while I can definitely say it wasn't me, there is a chance it was Theo as he gave 120 per cent in everything he did."

Donaldson said police surrounded the QE Hospital as one of the three lions had hidden under the building and he recalls seeing the lion's heaving chest as they waited for circus staff to arrive.

"These lions had possibly spent much of their lives in cages and, other than a run around the ring, probably didn't get much exercise. Bolting across the Village Green would have been quite a lot for them."

He remembers being impressed with "the sheer size of the lions".

"The shoulders of the lion running next to the police car, a Holden Kingswood, were level with the windows and it was between a half to three-quarters of the length of the car."

George Anaru was another policeman working that day and said he was happy sitting in his unmarked police car at the time.

"There were many armed police running around and a real threat of getting caught in the crossfire.

"In this instance, it wasn't a case of dealing with an angry person, it was an unpredictable animal."

He said, unbeknown at the time, his wife and children had been at the circus when the lions made their dash for freedom.