Practical Issues > Animals for Entertainment > Circuses

June 12, 2005
The elephant's graveyard?

IT WAS so dark in the cramped, dank smelling tent that I heard Anne, Britain's only remaining circus elephant, before I could even see her silhouette.

But when my eyes adjusted the scene was horrific.

The giant beast stood rocking back and forth, tethered by one front leg and one back leg enclosed within a pen of about 20ft by 15ft far too small for the comfort of such a large animal and showing all the signs of boredom and distress.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Anne's eyes were dull and lifeless and her small pen meant she did not even have room to turn. With little exercise or fresh air, her plight was almost unimaginable. Her arthritic legs are supporting three tons of weight.

Three or four bars two of them apparently electrified meant that any attempt at escape for the elderly elephant would be futile. Outside the cage a heavy metal shackle lay on the floor.

Circus owner Bobby Roberts has refused to let the 52-year-old elephant be freed or to admit anyone to her living quarters. But I was determined to find out how well he cared for the animal his daughter Kitty had said was 'like one of the family'. So, posing as a drifter looking for a job, I decided to infiltrate Anne's home at the Bobby Roberts Super Circus during its week in Falkirk, Stirlingshire.

Compared with elephants I had seen in the wild such as Anne's natural habitat in Sri Lanka she looked a pitiful beast in her lonely hell. She constantly swung her head from side to side and paced just one or two steps forward and back again in a rocking motion on top of a wooden base.

Two circus workers near the pen threw hay into her dung-strewn enclosure.

She scooped up some of it but a piece of dung with strands of hay stuck to it landed on her head as she swung up her trunk.

The workers only laughed at her plight.

One, a young English lad, shouted to the others: 'Look, Anne's got a new hairstyle!' It was at that point that he became aware of my presence and asked what I was doing there. 'I'm looking for a job,' I said. 'You shouldn't be here,' he said. 'It's not allowed.' Until then I had been almost unchallenged by a number of Eastern European workers. But this man was different. As he escorted me from the site I asked him more about Anne. He said: 'She's old, too old for the circus now and doesn't perform. We roll her out at the end of the show so that the kids can have their pictures taken with her. But that's about it.' In fact Anne is still trawled around the country and dressed in a gay headdress for the twicedaily photo sessions.

But far from being cherished or released to spend her final years in an elephant sanctuary she is confined in that dark and damp pen for most of the day and night.

Around the little tent, trailers and caravans are squashed close preventing her getting much exercise or even any fresh air.

I asked the worker if Anne was a timid beast and he replied: 'Well, like other animals she can get a bit annoyed and agitated, a bit hard to handle at times but she's been here a long time and she'll probably die here.' It is this fate that wildlife charity the Born Free Foundation has been campaigning to change. But Bobby Roberts will have none of it. I told the worker I wanted to speak to the boss to ask about a job.

But when Roberts, a tiny man with an angry, florid face, turned up he was incandescent with rage that I had meandered behind the scenes.

'What do you want?' he shouted.

'Go away. There's no job for you.

What were you doing round the back? I employ 60 people and I don't need any more. Get out.' Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, said: 'It doesn't have to be this way.

Perhaps Anne could go back to Sri Lanka or an elephant sanctuary. Or she could stay in the UK but be rehomed to enjoy the company of other elephants in a more appropriate environment.

'Elephants are social animals and Anne has never had the chance to enjoy this aspect of her life.

'Born Free has been seeking an urgent meeting with Mr Roberts to explore all the options. Her future is in his hands.' But, as I had discovered, Mr Roberts is not a man who likes to talk.

How you can help free Anne

THE Government Animal Health and Welfare Minister is Ben Bradshaw. If you want to help Anne, write to him at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JK. A DEFRA spokesman said last night: 'Anne has been looked after by the Bobbie Roberts family since the late Fifties.

We visited recently and she was found to be in good health for her age.'

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