Two lions escape from a circus in small town New Zealand. Who you gonna call?

In the beginning, it wasn’t really about the lions: the starting point for this story was a dog.

‘Jay’ was a German Shepherd, a police dog, and his beat was Auckland in the 1970s. His handler was Constable Mike Lodge; the two were a team, and good mates as well.

But the working life of a police dog isn’t that long. Most retire around eight years of age. Jay was getting close and the higher-ups told Mike that he’d have to be put down if he couldn’t do the job anymore.

Jay was a good dog, and Mike wasn’t going to let him go out that way – and anyway, he was getting tired of big city policing.

So Mike talked the bosses into letting him transfer to a quieter station somewhere and to take Jay with him. They agreed.

“I applied for about three different places,” he remembers.

“And eventually got Lawrence.”

Lawrence is a storied small town in Central Otago, on State Highway 8 between Dunedin and Alexandra. The New Zealand national anthem was composed there, and nearby is Gabriel’s Gully where the discovery of gold in 1860 led to the Otago Gold Rush. At one stage, more people lived in Lawrence than Dunedin.

That wasn’t the case when Mike, his family, and Jay arrived in early 1978. There were just a few hundred people living there. Mike soon knew them all.

“They were a loose bunch,” he chuckles, “very friendly”.

The people of Lawrence wanted to know about him, too.

“Being the new cop in town, they tested me.”

It’s forgivable then, that when Mike got a phone call one night from the local headmaster about some lions on the loose in the town, he didn’t believe him.

Simpson Park in Lawrence is just south of the town’s main road and next door to the Lawrence Area School. It’s used for all kinds of sporting and social events and on 30 March 1978 was partly occupied by some welcome visitors; Carlos’ Circus, making a return to the town.

Fast forward a few hours to 8.20pm: about 400 people, including children, are watching the second show of the night. Two of the circus’ three lions, Sultan (a male) and Sonia (a female) have left the ring as usual at the end of their segment but found their cage wasn’t properly closed. It’s not entirely clear how this happened but it’s believed that a new circus employee had simply failed to lock it.

Sultan and Sonia escaped and made their way to the rugby field next to the circus. The third lion, Suzy, stayed where she was.

The two lions were only three years old and Sultan wasn’t yet fully grown but at more than 150kg and over 2m in length, they were big enough to do some serious harm – and certainly big and unusual enough to stand out, just a bit, in the Central Otago landscape.

About 100m or so away from the lions was the Lawrence rugby team at their first practice for the new season. Des Dougherty was coach of the senior team and he was standing with juniors coach, Ken Homer, when he saw something odd.

“I thought; that’s funny. I turned to Ken and said ‘Are those things supposed to be running around up there?’ and he said ‘I wouldn’t think so!’.”

Des Dougherty walked over to where the team were warming up and said quietly “the lions are out”. They laughed at him, then took a look themselves. And then they were off.

“One guy there, Terry Young, he had a bright yellow tracksuit on, and it was like a shooting star when he took off.”

The team raced to the cars to hide but found the circus audience had got there before them. In the confusion, Sonia had knocked a woman and a young boy to the ground as they were trying to get away, badly gashing the child’s face. Six-year-old Craig Grant eventually needed 30 stitches to close the wound.  

People weren’t fussy about whose car they got in. Des, who arrived a few moments after everyone else, found his car already full with his wife, three kids as well as six others. The kids weren’t keen on opening the door for dad to get in.

“They wouldn’t even let her wind down the windows! I couldn’t see them for steam.”

By now, Mike Lodge had arrived at Simpson Park, having taken good care to lock his dog, Jay, at home first. Jay would have been up for a lion hunt, but it wouldn’t have ended well.

The circus people had tried to herd the lions back into their cage using a van but it hadn’t worked. This was getting serious. Mike was an experienced officer, but they don’t teach lion handling at Police College. By his own admission, he’d been running around like a headless chook before leaving home, trying to decide what to do. He rang headquarters in Dunedin who told him to get his rifle and get down there, so he did.

Mike was hopeful that the lions could be safely caged. He’s an animal nut, in case you hadn’t noticed. He loves them. After all, he’d moved to Lawrence to avoid having his dog put down.

After a while, however, as it got darker and the lions started moving away, it became obvious what had to be done. The circus manager, Russell Harris, told Mike to shoot them. He took aim at Sultan first.

“I shot him in the back of the head, in the mane. Then I ran around and put another one in the side of the head.

“Poor old feller.”

Sultan was dead. But the female lion, Sonia, had disappeared into the nighttime streets of central Lawrence.

For the next 40 minutes or so, people were out driving around the town looking for her. Some took it more seriously than others.

“There were four young guys in a car,” chuckles Des Dougherty. “They were sitting there with their arms out of the window, yahooing and carrying on.”

Someone yelled that the lion was coming but the young guys just laughed – then they saw Sonia walking towards them.

“Up went the windows!”

Sonia sniffed the windows of the car and put her paws up on top of the bonnet. Des reckons he could see the eyes of the four in the car shining like moons.

“They froze up, mouths open, worrying. That was a bit of a laugh, yeah.”

Sonia wandered down a street and ducked into a garage. The owner got out of his car to close the door but as he reached out, Sonia simply walked underneath his arm and got away again.

She climbed onto the porch of a house and stayed there.

Des says people were feeling brave by now and were getting out of their cars to see. Mike Lodge was there, rifle in hand, not far from the frightened lioness. He had some help now from a wildlife ranger called Richard Rowe.

Richard had a tranquiliser gun, but the dart was unusable. With people all around him, they discussed their options. They weren’t great.

All Mike wanted from the start was to get the lions back in their cage, so everyone, including Sultan and Sonia, would be safe. He doesn’t remember feeling scared, just focused and worried about everyone including the two escaped lions.

But now Sultan was dead, a boy had been mauled, and Sonia was resting on the porch of a friend’s house staring at the people in front of her. Once again, Mike had to make the hard call.  Richard had a more powerful rifle than him, so he took the first shot.

“He shot her in the stomach and she went berserk. She tried to make for the trees but there was no way. She was in pain, tossing her head about. I lined her up again. One shot, and she was gone.

“Poor old thing.”

It was over. Mike Lodge went home to bed.

Over the next few days and weeks, media from around the world were all over the story. Mike remembers having a good time with novelist Maurice Shadbolt who was writing it up for a magazine. They went out drinking and in the morning, he discovered the distinguished author still sleeping it off in his car.

But he didn’t get a lot of attention or care from the police. This was 1978 and things were different then, even for a man who’d faced down two lions. Some of his mates teased him a bit and called him “Daktari”, after the TV series of the time but by and large the bosses ignored him.

There was no commendation, no medal, no counselling.

One retired Police Inspector from Wellington, who had himself been forced to shoot an escaped leopard, did ring him to say well done.

“Yeah. He understood how it went.”

The townsfolk of Lawrence talked about the night the lions got out for a long time after that.

There were plenty of jokes at the next rugby training session but the team had a good year. Des Dougherty says a few of the players had discovered a useful turn of speed that night that stood them well in games.

No one at the circus was charged over the lions’ escape. The circus held a funeral for the dead pair and, by all accounts, Suzy – the one surviving lion – pined for her friends for a long time.

But Sultan and Sonia have had an afterlife of sorts. Otago Museum’s then-curator John Darby asked circus owner Russell Harris if he could have them for display and Harris agreed. So John got the slightly decomposing dead cats and had them stuffed for display. Local community groups, including the Lions Club, chipped in to pay for it. 

Even dead, Sultan and Sonia still had one big fright left in them. John was driving the by now mounted lions back through Christchurch when he caused a minor accident.

Sonia was mounted lying down with Sultan standing up alongside her. He stretched from the rear of the van and his head stuck into the space where a passenger would have been seated, with the face turned slightly to face outwards. John pulled up at an intersection. A woman in a car drew up alongside on his left. She glanced over at the van, saw a lion staring back at her, and drove straight into the back of the car in front of her.

It’s been forty years since that night in 1978 and Lawrence certainly hasn’t forgotten Sultan and Sonia. The pair are on display in the animal attic at Otago Museum but have also been back to Lawrence, where Des Dougherty was more than a bit shocked to see how big they really were.

Clare Blackmore, who was at the school next to Simpson Park but didn’t go to the circus that night, has been key in keeping the story alive. She’s created a website about the escape, had a plaque mounted at the park and written a book.

Working on the project, she discovered a closer connection than she’d previously thought: one night while telling her kids the story of the lions, her husband Geoff casually mentioned that he’d been at the rugby practice that night.

“I didn’t know! He just said he was there.

“They’re all pretty matter-of-fact around here.”

Mike Lodge stayed in Lawrence for another seven years before transferring to Amberley in North Canterbury, where he still lives. He’s retired from the police now.

His dog, Jay – who, in a sense, started all this for Mike – lived to the grand old age of 14, well up there for a German Shepherd. And certainly longer than he would have if Mike’s bosses had their way, or if he’d been allowed to join in the Lawrence Lion Hunt of 1978. 

Good dog, though. Good man, too. Well done.