Elephant we can’t forget

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It’s Moira, not Bobby, Roberts who opens the circus trailer door at 8am.

She’s not expecting the Press, certainly not ahead of the first 3pm show today.

There’s no preparation for our unannounced visit. What we find is a weary, wary, woman, in her dressing gown, adorned with elephants, in a trailer, with elephant design cushions, elephant pictures on the wall, a grandchild’s drawing of Anne the elephant on her fridge.

This is a circus clan still proud of the family name. Bobby Roberts Super Circus. One of the most respected until this year. Its international pedigree embraces the Andresz family, at Blackpool Tower Circus, and the Fossetts, some of who live locally, who effectively founded this dynasty. The Roberts used to work at the Tower Circus, pre-Delfont’s ban on performing animals.

Their bookings have plummeted since a scandal hit national and international headlines in March, after Anne the elephant, the UK’s last performing elephant, elderly and arthritic, was secretly filmed chained, beaten, kicked and jabbed, by her minder, with a pitchfork, over a three and a half week period.

Police and the RSPCA began an inquiry in response to the video shot by Animal Defenders International. No charges have been pressed. Yet. The keeper has fled, says Moira - who kicks herself for employing him. “Believe me, we want to get our hands on him too. I cannot understand why he could treat Anne like this. She was placid.” Nor can she understand the sound the pitchfork makes on the film. “It’s metallic. Our’s was plastic.”

Anne is now in the care of Longleat. “She was not taken off us, we let her go,” stresses Moira, 72, who married Bobby 45 years ago. “We knew her performing days were ending, we’ve tried to find her a home for two years. There couldn’t be other elephants, because Anne has been bullied by them in the past, and does not like other elephants, and it needed to be somewhere we could visit because we’ve been her family for the last 55 years.

“The fact that Anne is 59 years old, one of the oldest living elephants in Europe, shows we must have done something right all these years.

“We’ve kept in touch with Longleat. She lost some weight at first which worried us. She will have missed us. But the keepers are pleased with how she’s settling in. It was never going to be easy but this is unbearable.”

Bobby Roberts’ circus has come straight from Kendal. Bookings were low, says Bobby. They pitched camp on grazing land off Rossall Road, near Cleveleys, by 3am yesterday. Shows run from today to August 31.

“We’ve reduced travel time. First priority is the stabling of the horses and miniature ponies,” says Moira.

“The animals always come first.”

The horses are the only animals left since Anne and the camel were rehomed. Other footage showed the camel being spat at and horses being manhandled. The horses, says Moira, are the love of her daughter’s life. “Our children are 10th generation circus.

“They have a way with animals. You can’t train animals by cruelty.” Bobby and Moira’s trailer is positioned near the booking office, selling heavily discounted £5.99 grandstand seats for the two hour show, and so they can watch for animal welfare protesters.

Bobby adds: “We’ve had death threats, been frightened to let our grandchildren out of our sight. Posters have said coming to our circus is like inviting a paedophile into your home. How can they say such things?”

National animal protection charity, the Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS), urges the public to boycott local performances and asks businesses to remove promotions.

A government study says 95 per cent of the British public want use of wild animals in circuses completely banned. The Commons voted unanimously for that ban in June. It’s yet to be introduced. And horses are not wild animals.

For the last 40 of her 45 years with the circus Moira has done the hiring and occasional firing.

“I thought nothing could get past me,” she admits. But Anne’s keeper slipped through. “One bad apple in 40 years, how many other bosses could say that?” she says, feisty Scottish fighting spirit emerging through the tears.

“My friends say don’t be sad, get mad. But it’s hard. We’re not some big corporate with lots of money, we’re a traditional family circus, we haven’t had a holiday in 45 years, we won’t leave our animals for longer than 24 hours, we’re up against rising costs and red tape, the worst economy we’ve known, and other circuses going for the same business.

“We play it by the rules but now this ...” She cries again.

“This is why I don’t give interviews. Usually.”

Bobby makes her a cup of tea.

“You want to know what it’s like? We got a call from a man asking how close his seat was to the ring because he was bringing a gun so he could shoot me.

“Try living with that. It’s heartbreaking.”