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New documentary revisits moment lions escaped Rotorua circus 33 years ago

A great Kiwi tale involving rogue circus lions who marauded along the Rotorua lakefront after escaping from the circus has been made the subject of a new documentary series.

Four big cats wreaked havoc after they made a desperate dash for freedom from Whirling Brothers circus 33 years ago, where they miraculously caused just one casualty – the death of a small poodle named Lucy.

Aptly called Who Killed Lucy the Poodle?, the documentary treats the lions' escape as a classic whodunnit - with the circus act believed to have been sabotaged.

"It's not a witch hunt, it's really just piecing together this story," the series' producer, Kent Briggs, told Seven Sharp reporter Michael Holland.

Mr Briggs was seven, going on eight, and his older brother Gareth was almost 11 in January 1986 when they went to the circus - their first ever outing without their parents.

"There was a real electricity in the air," he said. "It was a stinking hot summer's day and it was packed, something like 500 people in this tent."

But even before they set foot in the big top, a broadcast was put out on the radio after one of the circus poodles went missing.

Newspapers at the time reported that circus performers believed Lucy, who was nursing five puppies at the time, was deliberately put in the lions' cage.

Her remains were found just before the big cats were called into the ring to perform.

"They are unruly, they are backchatting the lion tamer," he recalled. "Bumping up against the edge of the cage and the whole cage is moving.

"Then they all kind of, in a mass, banged into the door and it just popped open and four lions escaped. I just went straight into shock, just going, 'What is going on?'"

One of the felines was rounded up almost immediately, while three others were found wandering down by the lake.

"Big time stuff. You've got every cop with an available gun there."

Mr Briggs' niggling curiosity, even after 33 years, led him to produce the documentary series.

"How do you solve a 33-year-old cold case about a poodle murder? There's no handbook for it, as it turns out."

He said he has "three competing theories" over the events leading up to the lions' break for freedom, which he hopes to explore through the documentary.

One of the big parts of the puzzle, he said, was Stewie Campbell, a man who "rose to the occasion and did everything he could to get those lions safely back".

"If you know Stewie or his brother Shorty, we would really love to hear from you," he added.

Adding even more to the layers of intrigue is former Prime Minister David Lange, who "plays a big part in the story".

However, the series isn't just about unravelling the twists and turns in one of the country's most baffling stories, Mr Briggs said.

"It's a cracking yarn. There's something about this story that is magnetic."

Who Killed Lucy the Poodle? is coming soon to TVNZ OnDemand.

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The film, called Who Killed Lucy the Poodle?, references the lone casualty from the ordeal. Source: Seven Sharp