Toying with a twig between his giant paws Tsavo is far from being King of the Jungle – he looks as harmless as an oversized pussycat.

But as unfazed tamer Thomas Chipperfield swaggers into the cage and plants a massive kiss on the lion’s mouth, he tells me: “It would probably kill you.”

Tonight Tsavo and his brother Assegai will be the star act at Peter Jolly’s Circus, performing tricks meters away from an audience packed with families at its current home on a sports field in Helsby.

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Tensions are high in the village and protests were planned for last night’s opening performance with animal lovers slating the conditions as ‘inhumane’, ‘Victorian’ and ‘cruel’, but for these big cats the show will go on – it is, and will always be, their life.

At 24 years old Thomas is Britain’s only remaining lion tamer. He prides himself on changing people’s minds about circus conditions. He tells me he has never had a single complaint.

“Anyone that comes down to the show with any doubt about the nature of animals in captivity, they always walk away with their minds changed and their opinions in favour of what we do,” he said.

“We have never had anyone walk away and say they are disgusted by this. The only people who say that refuse to come.”

With more than 300 years of lion taming in his blood, Thomas grew up surrounded by lion and tiger cubs. Remarkably he doesn’t have a single visible scar on him, despite looking after the big cats since he was 12-years-old.

The circus doesn’t use whips or chains to train the big cats, explains Thomas, as he demonstrates training the big cats using bamboo canes, and how he teaches tricks through repetition and rewards.

“You can’t afford to mistreat a lion or tiger, because eventually they will turn,” says Thomas, describing a terrifying moment when generators failed while he was in the ring, plunging him into darkness for what felt like an eternity.

“They will realise they are a lot stronger, faster and more dangerous than you, and it can only end very badly.”

Thomas owns the lions and three tigers – Nada, Syas and Altai – who all live and travel together in a 45x8ft lorry. They move around the country every single week, apart from in the winter when they are based at a farm in Shrewsbury.

Despite being branded as ‘wild’, these big cats have never stepped foot outside of the circus, they were all born within the industry – raised by their mothers and Thomas treats them as if they were his family, he has been caring for them since he was 12.

“Tsavo lets me hug and kiss him in the show, it’s something that took a while to get him to do, because he’s not hand reared, but is something they will allow me to do.”

But despite a draft legislation to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, these lions and tigers may never be free if they are banned the circus says they may take them abroad as the government ‘could not take them away’.

Peter Jolly’s already has lions, one ankoli, a camel, a fox, a racoon, four reindeer, three snakes, and two zebra, but Anthony Beckwith, who has 13 years of circus experience, said they would not even rule out breeding or getting an elephant in the future, but they were ‘very expensive’.

During the day the big cats live in the lorry, but are able to get out into the grassy area as the cages are not locked – the area is surrounded by a cage and is about the size of a small one bedroomed flat.

The lions gaze out of the cage non-stop at me – or possibly the zebras tied-up nearby – so I ask Thomas why they are so subdued. His response: “Lions are typically couch potatoes.

“They are always doing something different. The surface of the ground here is different to last week, they are seeing different things, they watch the birds.”

But despite having trained and looked after the lions and tigers for half his life, Thomas has never seen a big cat in its natural habitat – he has seen them in safari parks but never in the wild, something he says he would love to do.

I ask him what he would say to people who slate his trade as cruel: “The wild lifestyle is not the Disney film people pretend it is.

“Some people object to just keeping them in captivity –  my argument to that is these guys live up to three times longer than they would in the wild.

“My appeal to anyone that’s got doubts about the welfare is to come and see how they are kept for themselves.”

And as for safety, Thomas and Anthony said people had tried to free the animals in the past, but the public was safe from the 300kg lions.

“If they did get out they wouldn’t get far,” said Anthony, who said they had plans in place in the event of an escape.