Animal welfare groups have roared their disapproval at an opera company for using two lions and a cheetah during live performances of Verdi's Aida.
The animals are transported daily from an animal park through the streets of Johannesburg to take part in the evening production.
The National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it was "unethical and cruel" to put the animals through the ordeal. The production also uses two horses on stage borrowed from the South African police service.
"The lions and cheetah are brought in from the lion park to the theatre every day. We're suffering really badly with power outages at the moment so there's lots of horns beeping and long traffic jams," said an NCSPCA spokeswoman, Christine Kuch. "On stage, there's a large orchestra, two complete choruses, lighting and noise. Aida is also what I'd called a 'busy' production with a lot going on. Is it sensible or fair to put these animals through all that just for authenticity?
"If they are doing Otello next week, would they bump off Desdemona for authenticity's sake? Of course not, so why are they using live animals in Aida?
"This is a wildlife issue. These animals will be stressed by the whole thing – it's all very inappropriate. We haven't even been asked to monitor them."
Verdi's Egyptian epic is being performed by Opera Africa and has played at Pretoria's State Theatre for four shows and five at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg, ending tomorrow.
Opera Africa's chief executive, Sandra de Villiers, declined to speak about the row yesterday but has previously denied that the animals' inclusion in the stage performance was cruel. She said the group had the correct certificates and documentation for the animals.
She said the police horses were accustomed to noise and transportation and were not affected by the production.
The animals appear in one 30-minute scene of the two hour, 40-minute performance. A Civic Theatre insider said the cheetah was held on a leash and the lions kept in a cage.
The country's Animal Anti-Cruelty League also condemned the use of animals. A spokeswoman, Heather Cowie, said: "We are opposed to any degree of confinement that is likely to cause distress or suffering. We are also opposed to the use of animals for any form of entertainment where distress or suffering is likely to be caused. Animals need to be kept in a way appropriate to their normal biological requirements."