The lion that escaped from a circus near Rome posed no threat to the public, his handler insisted Sunday, as campaigners called for Italy to ban wild animals in entertainment.
Residents of the seaside town of Ladispoli were told to stay indoors for more than five hours on Saturday evening while police, vets and circus staff tracked the lion, finally sedating and then capturing him.
Extraordinary videos published by Italian media, apparently taken by locals, showed the fully-grown lion with a shaggy mane walking through dark and deserted residential streets, padding past parked cars.
But Rony Vassallo, who is responsible for the animals in the Rony Roller Circus, said that while the thought of confronting a lion would make most people fearful, eight-year-old Kimba posed little danger.
"He met with people in an environment he wasn't used to... and nothing happened, he didn't even for a second have the instinct to attack a person," he told AFP at the circus site.
He said his fear had been "that someone could have harm the animal, out of fear, or excess enthusiasm".
Nearby, not far from the red and white striped main tent where preparations were under way for the afternoon show, the newly captured lion paced inside his cage, occasionally roaring.
- Sabotage? -
Vassallo said Kimba was only lightly sedated and woke up almost immediately, while examinations by vets had concluded he bore no ill-effects from his excursion.
But the handler, whose family runs the travelling circus, said they were all "very shaken and very tense" after the escape, which he believed was not an accident.
Vassallo said he personally checked on the cage an hour before the lion went walkabout, and "everything was in order".
He declined to comment on reports of sabotage, including that the lock was forced, saying an investigation was underway.
But he said it had never happened before and "it's very strange".
He showed how the door to the metal cage opens inwards, secured with a sliding bolt and a lightweight chain with a small padlock.
- Forced into captivity -
Kimba was born and raised in captivity, alongside his two brothers -- Zeus and Ivan -- and sister Maya.
They are among nine big cats at the circus, including tigers, while acts also involve elephants, camels, horses and even bison.
The circus has drawn the ire of animal rights campaigners, who say keeping such wild creatures is cruel.
More than 20 European countries have banned or heavily restricted the use of animals in circuses -- but Italy is not yet among them.
A law has been drafted but was this year delayed to 2024, according to the LAV campaign group, which estimates that just under 2,000 animals are held in circuses across Italy.
What happened in Ladispoli "highlights the dangers of circuses with animals from the point of view of public security", said animal rights group OIPA.
But it also highlighted "the discomfort of poor creatures forced into captivity for entertainment", it said.
Ladispoli mayor Alessandro Grando, who had warned residents to stay at home on Saturday, has also called for a change in the law.
"I hope that this episode can stir some consciences, and that we can finally put an end to the exploitation of animals in circuses," he said.
But Vassallo said critics "don't know the reality of the facts, how animals are treated in circuses, of the checks that are carried out".
In the surrounding neighbourhood, residents who spoke to AFP expressed support for the circus -- and seemed more concerned about the lion than public safety.
"I was a little bit scared but afterwards, from the images from the videos, you could see that he was so good," said Barbara Rosolino, 47.
"He wanted to go home anyway, you could see he was scared out of his mind."