The little boy with the big cat: Heartwarming photos show life behind the scenes at Australia's biggest animal circus
By Damien Gayle
Some children have a little pet cat - but Braxton West-Smith has a little big cat to play with.
The three-year-old trainee lion tamer is of the latest generation to join Australia's family-run Stardust Circus.
His best furry friend is an African lion cub called Zimbi, who will one day take his place under the lights of the big top too.
Stardust is Australia's largest animal circus, in an era where the use of animals in such spectacles is increasingly under scrutiny.
Travelling across the vast country, from outback towns to coastal cities, they carry with them performing animals including lions, monkeys, horses and miniature trick ponies.
They insist they only use the most humane techniques to train their beasts.
'Our animals have been trained with the reward method, and are treated as part of this large family,' says the Stardust website.
As these pictures show, baby animals are treated little different from baby humans by the family-run circus.
Zimbi shares breakfast and playtime with his young human handlers, they train together and, at the end of a long, tiring day, he has his own - rather scratched - armchair to relax in.
But how long such an existence will continue is uncertain, as opposition to animals in circuses grows in Australia.
Thirty animal activists turned up to a performance of Stardust Circus in Dingley Village, Victoria, just three days ago, and the popularity of groups in the country which opposes animal acts seems to be on the rise.
Rules about circuses vary from state to state, with most requiring owners to apply for permission to exhibit their animals.
Nevertheless, an activist speaking on an Australian animal rights forum about a visit to Stardust Circus found little evidence that their creatures were being mistreated.
Rana Hales of the Caroline Springs Animal Welfare Network said the owner Janice Lennon was more than happy to show her and a fellow activist around their camp site.
'On seeing the animals, they all appeared to be well fed and watered,' she said in the 2009 forum post, before going into details about the manner in which the creatures were kept.
But little Braxton isn't thinking about the possible future legal environment surrounding his family trade - he just wants to follow in the footsteps of his forebears.
'When I grow up, I think I'll train the goats,' he said. 'I want to be just like dad.'
Braxton's father trains most of the animals at Stardust Circus. His mother performs with the ponies, and also on the trapeze.