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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A day this elephant will never forget: Anne's retirement begins as campaign to build haven for circus animals is launched

By Jane Fryer

Jumping for joy: Anne enjoys playing with a tyre as she explores her new home

Anne’s first steps are faltering as, slowly, she shuffles forwards, back legs dragging painfully on the concrete floor, her head bobbing nervously up and down, and breath coming in loud, whooshing blasts. Everything about her looks tired and creaky and sore, from her arthritic joints to her dry, wrinkled skin.

Her dark brown eyes are weepy, her huge yellow toenails chipped and gnarled. Her tail finishes in a sad, knobbly stump — the feathery end chewed off decades ago.

But as she edges further across the lush green grass of her new enclosure, towards a flock of pink flamingos and a herd of eland basking in the spring sunshine, she seems to savour every second.

Every few paces she stops to feel the sun on her back, curl a tuft of grass in her trunk, or have a satisfying scratch against a fallen log.

And, presumably, to revel in her sudden good fortune.

Because, thanks to the Daily Mail — and, more importantly, to the unfailing support of our readers — Britain’s last (and oldest) working circus elephant has finally hung up her undignified feather headdress.

After 54 years of performing and relentless touring, Anne has begun her long overdue retirement in a tranquil, 13-acre enclosure in the beautifully landscaped grounds of Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire.

It couldn’t be more of a contrast to the home where she has lived for the past half century — a corrugated metal compound, littered with animal droppings, owned by the Bobby Roberts Super Circus.

In the shower: Warden Andy Hayton turns on the hose - something that Anne clearly relishes

Play time: Anne is learning how to enjoy herself for the first time. A daily sand shower is one of her main pleasures

Over the past year, she was shackled by one foot, stabbed with a pitchfork and kicked in her painfully arthritic leg by a monstrous Romanian groom called Nicolae, who has now fled the country.

Anne’s plight was revealed by the Mail last week in secret video footage filmed by animal welfare group Animal Defenders International. Since then, animal welfare experts, safari park bosses, vets and animal charity representatives have been locked in debate over her fate.

How could Anne best be saved? Where should she go to recover from her ordeal? Was she well enough to travel? Or — awful though it sounds — would it actually be kinder to end her suffering once and for all?

All of which seems slightly surreal today, because, from the moment she arrived at Longleat on Sunday, — accompanied for her journey by police, a private vet and an elephant specialist — the 59-year-old Asian elephant has behaved as if to the manor born and obviously desperate to show that, despite being the oldest elephant in Europe, she is anything but on her last legs.

Yesterday, she wolfed down two bales of hay, a small mountain of grain, dozens of apples, countless bananas (she prefers them lightly browned), bags of carrots and the odd handful of wine gums, all washed down with gallons of water — and still had room for her favourite snack of banana or jam sandwiches, on brown.

She has also enjoyed a 45-minute scrub-down courtesy of Longleat resident elephant keepers Andy and Ryan, two stiff blue scrubbing brushes, two huge yellow buckets of warm soapy water, a pressure hose and a constant battle with Anne’s very energetic trunk.

Next on the agenda — after her promenade round her outer enclosure — is a frolic in her very own 40-ton sandpit (spraying sand over her head, neck and back), a cooling paddle in her shallow pond and a quick game of football with an enormous rubber tyre.

Indeed, despite her horrific ordeal, it’s hard to imagine her settling in better.

One trunk against another: Anne tests her strength against a giant tree trunk

‘An elephant’s eye tells you a lot,’ says keeper Andy Hayton.

‘You can see it in their eyes if they’re in pain: they go dull and sad, rather than bright and beady.

‘And you can hear their mood in their voice. If an elephant is happy, she’ll talk to you — and Anne has been rumbling and purring away to me ever since she arrived.’

While Anne couldn’t look happier to be here, and less like a geriatric old lady by the minute, she will never forget her last dreadful years.

April shower: It's clear that Anne is perfectly content in her new home

‘Elephants are very intelligent emotional animals, with very long memories,’ says Andy.

‘They’re not like goldfish; they’re like us. That’s what makes them so special.

‘So Anne won’t just remember what’s happened over the past year, she’ll remember 50-odd years back. She’s got a lifetime of memories in there.’
And sadly, of course, not all of them good.

Anne was just a calf when she was trapped by hunters in Sri Lanka in 1954. From there she was shipped to the UK, and in 1957 sold to Bobby Roberts Super Circus for £3,000.

Since then, she has spent every single circus season performing demeaning tricks, acting as a moving platform for clowns and dancers, rearing up on her hind legs like a four-ton stallion, and standing patiently as thousands of children queued for £6-a-pop photographs with her.

Out of season, she has spent a horrendous portion of her life shackled by chains in her horrid metal shed.

She was bullied by her late fellow elephants Beverly and Janie, who barged her and chewed her tail, and then by the monstrous Nicolae.

And while her 68-year-old owner Bobby Roberts and his wife Moira, 72, today insist they couldn’t have loved Anne more, there can be little doubt that 50 years of being pushed and prodded and poked must have taken their toll on such a dignified and majestic animal.

Which is why Longleat staff are determined that, for once, it will be Anne, not her keepers, who sets the pace for her retirement.

They have vowed to take things at her pace, and not to overdo a planned treatment schedule of hydrotherapy, dust baths, scrub-downs and physiotherapy that would make even the most pampered celebrity jealous.

‘We need to take things at her speed,’ says Jonathan Cracknell, director of animal operations at Longleat. ‘We need to stimulate her and make sure she isn’t bored. But we mustn’t forget that she’s an old lady.

‘And just like any old lady, some days she’ll be in the mood to go out and charge round the shops, and others she’ll want to put her feet up and watch Loose Women on telly.’

For now, Anne will be sharing the park’s old-fashioned concrete-floored elephant shed and enclosure with the resident rhino, antelopes, flamingos and pelicans.

But this is very much a stop-gap, and plans are afoot to build a custom-made elephant enclosure, with swimming pool, central heating, wading area, enormous sandpit, proper fencing and umpteen acres that would become the first port of call in the future for distressed elephants from Europe and further afield to recuperate after appalling treatment.

She may be old and grey and badly lame, but there is something very special about Anne.

As Jonathan Cracknell puts it: ‘Elephants have emotions — they feel things and remember things. They’re like people with trunks, who just happen to weigh four tons.’

As I stroke her goodbye (close up, she is warm to the touch, with soft, kind eyes, surprisingly springy skin and a trunk that immediately snakes round my waist), it is impossible to imagine how anyone could treat this wonderful animal with anything other than love and respect.

We can only be thankful that, after half a century of being forced to perform, Anne is finally being given a dignified retirement.



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