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Posted on April 7, 2011
Anne the elephant at Longleat Safari Park. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
She has a leisurely roll in a pile of sand before spending a good 40 minutes rubbing against assorted metal bars and gates. She pauses to suck up a few stray strands of hay that she sprays over her back. And then she trundles off for a snooze. It is hardly an action-packed day, but after half a century of hard circus graft, Anne the elephant could be forgiven for taking it easy. And, like minders keen to protect a sensitive star, her new keepers at Longleat Safari Park are not going to force her to perform for the cameras.
“It’s about giving her dignity now,” says Jon Cracknell, the director of animal operations at Longleat. “She needs a bit of space and time to get used to her new surroundings, her new life. We do things at her pace, not anyone else’s, and I don’t want her to become a tabloid pawn. She needs her privacy.”
It may already be too late for that. For more than a week now the story of Anne, Britain’s last circus elephant, has competed with crime and war stories for space in the tabloids – and fared pretty well. The fuss shows no sign of dying down. When the Guardian was granted an audience with Anne yesterday, the PR department’s phones were ringing off the hook from newspapers wanting to know how Anne was doing and photographers keen to come along and document her every roll and rub.
Journalists from as far afield as Brazil have requested access, and Cracknell had to put his foot down when representatives of a Hollywood actor – he is too discreet to say which one – expressed a desire to have their man pictured next to Anne.
The hysteria began when upsetting footage, taken by a hidden camera installed by the campaign group Animal Defenders International, was released to the Daily Mail. It showed a worker beating, kicking and jabbing Anne at the winter home of the Bobby Roberts Super Circus, where the animal has worked since 1957.
There was an outcry from the Mail, other newspapers, animal charities and the public. The Roberts family expressed their anger and concern over what the worker had done to Anne, whom they said they thought of as a “family pet”, not just a performing animal. But the pressure on the Roberts family became so intense that they agreed to let Anne go. Ownership was signed over to Specialist Wildlife Services, which rescues and rehomes animals ranging from wolves to wallabies, and Longleat in Wiltshire – home to Lord Bath and other exotic creatures – stepped in to take on the mantle of Anne’s guardian.
Of course, the tabloids took the credit. The Mail, the Sunday Mirror and the Sun all boasted of the parts they played in Anne’s rescue.
Such was the media’s interest in witnessing Anne’s move that police in Northamptonshire treated her as they would a category “A” prisoner and she was whisked away under cover of darkness. She arrived at Longleat on Sunday in an operation that cost around £15,000. Since then she has been settling into her new home, a house she shares with five rhinos, and a yard boasting a fine view of a couple of ponds inhabited by pelicans and flamingos. “She was a little overexcited and playful in the first few days, so she may have overdone it,” said Cracknell. “She’s got to find her limits.”
Anne is, according to Cracknell, in pretty good condition. Her back legs, which are racked with arthritis, already seem better, and her dry, cracked skin is improving – she uses the pile of sand as a sort of facial scrub. She is not overweight and does not have the sort of scars and scratches you would expect if she had been routinely abused for a long time. At 57 or thereabouts, she is already older than most elephants in captivity, which suggests she has had a decent life.
Cracknell does not see Bobby Roberts as the “villain” that some do. “I like Mr Roberts. He and his wife, Moira, are really upset. Moira is phoning four times a day to ask how Anne is.” He tells Moira that Anne is receiving the best care. Experienced vets are being brought in to make sure she is well but Longleat is also hiring experts in reiki, homeopathy and herbal medicine to see if they can help her arthritis and skin problems.
There are three options for Anne now. If she is perceived to be in pain and declining, she could yet be put out of her misery. There is a slim possibility that she could be jetted to an elephant sanctuary in the US, but she is so old that the long flight could be dangerous. It seems more likely that she will stay at Longleat, which has launched an appeal – in unison with the Mail – to build an elephant sanctuary.
Some groups, including the Born Free Foundation, have expressed concern at the safari park’s use of the ankus (a stick with a hook at one end) and chains to control Anne, but the consensus seems to be that the safari park is better for Anne than any other option at the moment.
But is she missing the circus life? Cracknell thinks she is probably content not having to work, but may miss her old owners. “She formed a close relationship with Bobby and Moira over many years. I think she will miss him and Moira. But she will form new friendships, new relationships at Longleat. I think she’ll be a happy old lady here.” Animal capers that caused a stir
Blackie the Donkey Blackie (real name Nero) became a cause celebre in Britain in 1987 when it was reported that she was likely to be crushed to death in a fiesta in a village near Madrid. Hard to get to the truth of the tug of love between Sun and Star reporters who had both been ordered to go and rescue the donkey and not return to Britain without her. One version has a Sun reporter getting to the donkey’s owner first, buying the beast and leaving it in a farmer’s field while he went and had a meal. Enter a Star reporter who is said to have bought the donkey from the farmer and spirited it away. Somehow, both the Sun and Star ended up with a donkey called Blackie.
The Tamworth Two Another classic animal tabloid scramble, this one in rural Wiltshire. Two piglets escaped from an abattoir and spent a week on the run in January 1998. The Mail newsdesk nicknamed the fleet-footed pair Butch and Sundance (pictured left) and despatched a team of reporters to try to catch them. The Mail won the chase, bought the pigs from their owner and re-housed them in Kent. After, of course, devoting pages to the story of how the paper saved them.
Anapka the Flying Donkey What is it about donkeys and the tabloids? There was concern around the world when images of Anapka the donkey emerged. The issue? She was suspended under a multi-coloured parachute 50m above a Russian seaside resort. The Sun led the race to save the animal and trumpeted its success on the front page in classic style: “We’ve Saved Her Ass.” Inside, the paper promised: “She will NEVER have to parasail again.” She didn’t and died – on solid ground – of heart failure at her Moscow sanctuary earlier this year.