Johannesburg - When daredevil performer Jansen Grant heard loud sounds on Sunday morning, he thought the circus’s camels might just be up to something.
But when the noises continued, it became clear what they were - screams.
He ran out of his caravan to the tigers’ enclosure of McLaren Circus, where he found one of the female tigers on top of one of his co-workers.
She was tearing at his jacket and neck.
Grant used the broom the cleaner had been using to clean the cage to swat off the tiger, before dragging the man to safety.
McLaren Circus had set up tent in Muldersdrift last Thursday and had its last performance on Sunday
“It’s never the animal’s fault,” Grant said.
“There is a risk no matter what. They are wild animals no matter what.”
He said the cleaner had got up early and started cleaning the cages alone, which he said was “mindboggling” as they always cleaned the cages in pairs for safety.
Grant said they moved the big cats between sections of the cages as they cleaned and the cleaner must have forgotten to put the safety catch on one of the compartments, allowing the tiger to get out and attack him.
He said the cleaner had been working with the circus for two years.
Netcare 911 spokesman Chris Botha said paramedics arrived at the circus site and found a man lying on the ground with severe bite wounds and lacerations to his neck and chest.
He said they had stabilised the man, but his injuries were critical and he was taken to an undisclosed hospital.
For Grant and David McLaren, the circus’s owner, a key concern was the fate of the animal.
They did not want to reveal which tiger was responsible, for fear it may be singled out by the authorities.
“It’s lovely when (an attack) happens at the circus, because the animal rights people can run with it,” McLaren said.
He said the fact that the tiger had not killed the employee, which she was capable of doing, was a sign that she was aware of her boundaries.
“(The animals) are conditioned to the life of a circus, a life on the road,” McLaren said.
They started hand-rearing performing cats at six weeks of age and it was a fallacy that they were taken from the wild as the circus life was the only one they had known, he said.
By 3pm on Sunday, traditional fairground music was playing as a long line of parents and children armed with popcorn and soft drinks snaked their way into the dark tent to watch the final show.
McLaren, who has been running the circus for nearly 10 years, said that working in a circus had been his childhood dream.
Australian Grant is a seventh-generation circus performer and specialises in juggling and the wheel of death - a large spinning wheel on which acrobatics are performed.
He said all children of circus families would try out all the different acts before picking a speciality.
His brother, father and grandfather are clowns, while his sisters and aunts were trapeze artists.
“We are regular people. If you cut us, we will bleed,” he said.
The police did not respond to requests for comment.