The man who bred 120 tigers in rural Lincolnshire

Tiger cubs Bora and Nikita
Image caption Bora and Nikita were born seven months ago at Martin Lacey's home in Lincolnshire

Following the birth of the first tiger at London Zoo in 17 years, a former circus owner talks about his life breeding tigers in rural Lincolnshire.

At the height of his career in the 1970s, Martin Lacey was known as the "man that fear forgot" - being the only one to put his head inside a lion's mouth.

That was just part of his work to run the now-closed Great British Circus, which has also included breeding more than 120 tigers at his home in Keal Cotes.

Now aged in his 70s, Mr Lacey plans to retire, with most of the tigers will now go to his sons' circus in Germany.

His work has included starring in the children's TV show Magpie and training some of the tigers used in the Esso adverts.

Bred reindeer

Image caption Martin Lacey has spent his career working with big cats

He said he had enjoyed a fantastic career and "had certainly done his bit" to help with tiger conservation.

"This year we've had 12 cubs in Lincolnshire and 12 in Germany," he said.

"Most will go to my sons' circus, but we are able to let any surplus go to zoological gardens, which reduces the need to bring in any animals from the wild.

"We are definitely doing well in the conservation stakes - we also bred reindeer here this year, and that's not easy."

However, changes in public attitudes to performing animals mean he has faced criticism in recent years.

The UK government has announced that a ban prohibiting the use of wild animals in circuses in Britain would come into effect in 2015.

Under the terms of the draft Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, the ban will cover any creature not normally domesticated in Britain.

Image caption The Great British Circus faced numerous protests over the years

The RSPCA said public opinion has been against the practice for some time because "lions and tigers performing do not have a place in today's society."

However, Mr Lacey says his tigers enjoy the highest standards of care and described the animal's time in the circus ring as "organised play".

"They run and jump - just as they would in the wild," he said.

"I believe there is a mass of support for animals in entertainment and people should have the freedom of choice - you can only watch so many jugglers before it gets a bit boring.

"We are breeding them specifically for work and are looking for intelligent animals.

"Just as some strains of Alsatian look fantastic but are a little bit thick - our animals have to be intelligent and look good as well."

However, the closure of the Great British Circus in 2012 was welcomed by the Captive Animals Protection Society.

Director Liz Tyson said: "The door is firmly closing on the inherently cruel and unethical practice of using animals in circuses in this country."

But, Mr Lacey said: "We've wiped out 90% of the wild population of tigers, so the only place you are going to find these wonderful creatures is in a zoo or circus.

"The only other alternative is stuffed in a museum and I know which I'd like my great, great grandchildren to see."

The Lacey family currently has about 80 big cats in its care, including Indian tigers and white lions.

Image caption Many of the tigers bred in Lincolnshire go on to work with Martin Lacey's sons, Martin Jr and Alex

He said: "As well as providing shade for them during the summer months, I've got a very good slaughterhouse which lets me take things like pig's heads, hearts, liver and trotters."

He also described security at his home as much better than "Parkhurst".

"We've never had an escape and we can't ever have an escape," he stressed.

Mr Lacey, who was training up until the age of 70, said he was retiring because "[the tigers] are moving a little bit faster than I am these days".

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