Anosa Kouta is not an accountant; she is not a doctor, she doesn’t architect buildings, nor does she wait tables. She tames African lions. Her story is that of fantastical peculiarities, befitting of a Tim Burton movie or a Dr. Seuss tale, in quite an ordinary time. How she, and others before her, rose to the top of the food chain to join these apex predators has both drawn damning criticism and inspired awe in equal measure.
Kouta was destined to walk with lions, both by blood and volition. At two, her older brother, now world renowned lion tamer Hamada Kouta, placed his head in a lion’s mouth for the first time. “My brother and I were raised with lions; we had them at home, so I was used to having them around from a very early age,” she says.
Her grandmother is famed lion tamer Mahassen El Helw, who also passed down the craft to her son Medhat Kouta, Anosa’s father. “When he and my grandmother would do a show together, they could both notice me observing and following the animals’ moves, not like an ordinary audience member, but rather like someone who’s learning. Whenever I did well in school, my dad would reward me by letting me into the ring […] Getting a lion to raise their hands or jump from one stool to another meant the world to me,” she recounts. The 28-year-old, however, has the additional genetic advantage of hailing from three circus dynasties – the Akef, Helw, and Kouta families, who are widely credited for founding the industry in Egypt.
Having toured Egypt, the Middle East, and even been featured in Swiss-German Director Anka Schmid’s documentary Wild Women – Gentle Beasts – which examines the lives of female animal trainers from around the world and explores their bonds with their beasts and their taxing career choices – Kouta is now a full-fledged lion tamer in her own right. Her future, however, is shackled to a dark past and threatened by a tumultuous present.
Her ancestors all had their close encounters with death. Her grandfather Mohamed El Helw was mulled by Sultan the lion while bowing to the audience after a show and died shortly afterwards, and her father miraculously survived an attack by four lions. “99% of the time, it is the trainer’s fault; they do something wrong, they approach the animal at the wrong time, the animal is already agitated and unwilling to perform the behaviour but they make them anyway, and that’s how things go wrong,” she explains.
Three years ago, Medhat Kouta survived yet another attack, but this time it was him and his mother Mahassen El Helw against 17 lions. The incident was heavily covered by the media. According to contemporaneous reports, the culprit was a lion named Tommy, who had given a poor performance that day. Dreading the whipping he was sure to receive after the show, his nervous moves around the arena caused a lion brawl to erupt.
Photo by O. Sallam
Animal cruelty is just one of the many accusations leveled against the family and the industry at large, and were inevitably extended to Kouta, charges to which she pleads ‘not guilty’. “The philosophy I employ in my work is different than the one I was taught. I take the animal’s psyche into account, rather than the old carrot-and-stick method; I examine the reasons behind its mood swings and why they might get agitated to the point where they attack you,” she argues. “The notion that I punish the animal physically is very far-fetched. If I treat a lion or a tiger roughly, they will retaliate the same minute – they fear nothing. We are friends, we agree on a certain set of rules from the get go: you will perform this behaviour and I’ll reward you with a piece of meat; no behaviour, no meat, and I communicate that to them. […] So, we start out like that, until the dynamic evolves and they become some kind of a star, walking into the ring and performing their own show.”
Yet, her defense would hardly persuade the outraged lynch mob of animal rights defenders demanding an immediate ban of the circus industry around the world. However, Kouta insists that, even though animal acts were banned in many countries, it would be unimaginable to do the same in Egypt. “They tried to apply it here in Egypt, and they failed miserably," she recalls. "We as Eastern people love predators and lions. You can’t have a circus without a wild animal segment, children bring their parents to the circus because they want to watch the lion. It’s the piece de resistance, the main act!”
It takes the heart of a lion not to falter in reverence and terror at the sight of one, a quality that must run in Kouta’s bloodline seeing as the young trainer vehemently denies claims that the circus drugs the animals to make them more manageable, saying that such a measure is not needed as she possesses a much stronger weapon to tame these beasts. "A lion can detect fear even before the body releases adrenaline, that's in case you go in worried or anxious, that's the first lesson my father taught me," she says. "I don't fear lions."
Photo by Ahmed Taha
Fearlessness is not the only trait Kouta shares with African lions; her bond with them is an emotional one, so deep and intense that only a lion can reciprocate, as she describes. "I feel that a lion is a loyal friend to have, in the sense that he’d never betray me. When you get to know someone and befriend them, you tell them your secrets, it becomes a strong friendship, and sometimes they turn out to be a backstabber or simply just not a good person. It’s not like with lions; from the get-go they let you know they’re a predator that might attack you, but as long as you're friends and on good terms, they won’t harm you," she clarifies. "I believe that my friendship with a lion is eternal, as opposed to my relationships with people. I don’t have any ‘human’ friends, my friends are my lions. I have acquaintances, but not close friends – only my wild cats. Sometimes, when I’m upset or sad, I spend time with them and communicate what is bothering me, and I can feel the lions comforting me. That’s why I feel that my lions are my loyal friends, and I say that from experience."
These regal creatures – kings of the jungle, designed to split the wind with their sprint, rule prides and roar the fear of God into their enemies’ hearts like the personification of nature’s might and wrath – are reduced to a circus act. For less than 100 EGP, you can sit back and enjoy as they perform tricks and jump through hoops of fire for your amusement. Some may consider it a grave injustice, but not Kouta. "When animal rights groups come to visit the circus, they see that I provide a decent life for my animals, they stay in four-square-metre spaces, and they get to play together in the arena every morning, aside from rehearsals and shows," she argues. "I pay very close attention to their nutrition and living conditions. They’re everything to me. I don’t think anyone could possibly be more concerned for the animals’ welfare than me. [...] It’s the reason why I don’t consider starting a family or having kids, because I’m totally invested in them – they’re my children, they’re my main concern."
(Main Image: Wild Women - Gentle Beasts)
Video by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions
Cinematography: Taher Gamal
Art Direction: Ahmed Abi