They were pictures which were beamed around the world – zebras on the run after escaping from a circus in Philadelphia.
But the scene resembled an altogether more fearsome circus escape in Birmingham a century ago – when a lion went on the run.
Early modern historian Helen Cowie revealed that animals making a break for freedom was nothing new – especially in Victorian times.
In 1899 a young black-maned Nubian lion escaped from Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie, which was visiting Aston.
A report, which has just been unearthed in the Pall Mall Gazette, described the amazing scenes which ensued.
The tale began when the lion’s keeper was distracted by a fight between an ostrich and a deer – and, the Pall Mall Gazette claimed – an elephant had removed the fastening to the lion cage and the beast took the opportunity to escape.
The report stated: “The eastern suburb of Birmingham was yesterday the scene of a protracted and exciting animal hunt.
“At first the animal seemed quite bewildered with the noise of the people, the blare of the steam trumpets, the clashing of cymbals, and the bellowing of the organs, and it remained for some time rooted to the spot.”
The report added: “Men, women and children scampered off in all directions as the lion dashed across the ground, hotly pursued by the men from Wombwell’s. A group of children were in its path, but it cleared them at a bound.”
The lion made for a stream, before taking refuge in a sewer.
Chief lion tamer Marcus Orenzo heard the lion’s roar, crawled through a manhole and began to pursue the animal.
A trap was set with a cage over the drain opening and Orenzo, ‘armed with a heavy revolved and accompanied by a boarhound’ approached the lion, firing two shots.
The report said: “The lion tamer crawled after it with all haste, and the faithful boarhound was kept close at hand.”
The dog began to bark and the lion retreated, being captured in the waiting cage.
Ms Cowie said: “In the 19th century such break-outs were far more common.
“Menageries toured widely from the late 18th century, bringing exotic animals within reach of even the poorest members of society.
“Health and safety was not a priority for exhibitors, and it wasn’t unheard of to find an orangutan in your bedroom or a tiger loose in the street.”
Other animal escapes in Birmingham:
* In 1979 a lion escaped from a circus visiting Dartmouth Park in West Bromwich. It was later found in a park sniffing a workman’s lunch – and recaptured.
* A 5ft snake, believed to be a python, was spotted slithering on the A38(M) Aston Expressway in August 2013. The exotic pet was seen on the city-bound side of the Expressway near to Dartmouth Circus at 9am.
One lane was temporarily closed while the creature was caught and safely removed from the highway by officers from the Central Motorway Police Group.
* Thousands of motorists were stuck on Heartlands Parkway in September 2010 as police waited for a marksman to tranquillise a red deer stag that was in the road. The two-year-old male was ferried by van to Sutton Park, where it was later released after regaining consciousness and being checked by a vet.
* A runaway horse charged into the Best Western Birmingham Metro Maypole on October 9, 2013, damaging the hotel lobby and getting into a lift.
* Birmingham Nature Centre’s first red panda Babu hit the headlines in 2005 when he escaped from his enclosure and spent four days on the loose in Edgbaston, dining from bird tables.
He was spotted 60ft up a tree, a mile away at Birmingham’s Holders Lane Woods.
* In August 2012 there were reports of a tiger in Kingswinford – believed to have escaped from West Midland Safari Park. Police prepared for a major operation to round up the feline.
But it turned out to be a stag party reveller in fancy dress attempting to make off with a traffic cone.