Rise & fall of performing sheep

The Great Tragedy of 1938 was about one city’s role in the rise and fall of performing sheep. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer radio.

Over a century ago, trained animals including performing sheep were a big thing. Flocks of sheep travelled the world appearing in shows in all quarters of the globe.

One such show was here in Australia when the First World War started. Because of the war, in 1915 a German sheep owner found himself stranded and ostracised here in Australia in enemy territory, and he had his collection of animals with him.

When he was in Victoria he pleaded with military authorities to be interned for his own safety. But they didn’t know what to do with him, because the German insisted on being interned along with his seven performing sheep, a bucking ram, and two gymnastic pigs.

Meanwhile, the St. Leon family was a leading Australian family of circus performers and animal trainers with their own animal troupe, and they also took their act around the world. Today the St. Leons are fourth generation circus performers.

Four generations of the St. Leon circus family.

The family regularly made the trip to Ipswich in Queensland, but in 1938 tragedy struck. That’s because while Adrian St. Leon was appearing at the Ipswich Show, his performing sheep were killed by dogs.

Two Alsatian dogs were quickly identified and destroyed, but questions were raised that perhaps the Alsatian’s weren’t guilty. Maybe they’d been stitched-up. That’s because back then there were around forty stray dogs roaming the streets of Ipswich each night, and it could have been anyone of them.

The Ipswich tragedy proved to be the beginning of the end for performing sheep, and numbers waned.

Within a couple of years, the only performing sheep left in Australia were said to be three in the Farnham Brothers Circus. There was even controversy in England at around this time where there were complaints that performing sheep were kept in adjoining rooms to performing children.

That just wasn’t on, so flocks dwindled and sadly the last shearing time had come.

Adrian St. Leon guarding one of his ponies

Following the Ipswich Tragedy for Adrian St. Leon when his performing sheep were killed by dogs, disaster struck again – this time his performing 29-inch pony was also killed by dogs.

St. Leon conceded defeat and began showing performing dogs instead. 

Adrian St. Leon and his performing dogs

At this year’s Ipswich Show and many other shows around the country, one of the highlights was the thoroughbred racing pigs.

But don’t forget the Ipswich Tragedy of 1938 which proved to be the final fleecing for the once popular spectacle of performing sheep.


Photo credits:
Muddy Creek sheep – Graeme Addinsall 2020.
Four generations of the St Leon Circus Family 1898 – Sydney Morning Herald, 11th May 2011.
Showman Adrian St Leon guarding one of his Shetland ponies against attack – Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 24th April 1951, page 7.
Kelpie dogs with their trainer Adrian St Leon in the Ridgways Circus – Canterbury Stories NZ

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