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Friday, 18 March 2016

Saving Anne the Elephant by Claire Ellicott - Book Review.

Bull-hook (noun) A pointy stick used by animal rights activists to bash circuses and prod the consciences of fans.

It was largely local bans of the bull-hook, ankus or elephant goad that led Ringling to retire its iconic elephant parade. Without the guiding tool, which has been used by Indian mahouts for thousands of years, it would be impossible for the circus to safely control its elephants in the street or circus ring, thus making it untenable for the show to visit major cities such as Los Angeles.

Or would it?

I recently watched some Golden Age footage of Britain’s Bobby Roberts working his elephants at the height of his fame. It was an exciting, fast moving act. The elephants ran around the ring, sat on tubs with their forelegs in the air, laid down in perfect choreography and performed headstands... all the things circus elephants are famous for doing.

Bobby and Anne
Look ma, no bull-hook.
Yet Roberts says he has never used or even owned a bull-hook in his life. His control of his herd, which he worked from their infancy - when he himself was just a lad - was entirely with his voice.

“I always said if you couldn’t hold it (the elephant) with your tongue, you couldn’t handle them,” said Bobby. “When I shouted, that was enough.”

The only tools he used were a whip (for cracking, not hitting the elephants) and a walking stick that the lead elephant would hold in its trunk when he led his parade, marching trunk to tail, from railway station to circus ground.

That’s one of the surprising details to emerge from Claire Ellicott’s new book, Saving Anne the Elephant - The True Story of The Last British Circus Elephant.

It was, of course, undercover film of Anne being hit by Romanian groom Nicolae Nitu that led to the closure of Bobby Roberts Super Circus after a media outcry in 2011. The case led to Lord Taylor announcing a ban on wild animals in UK circuses, although the legislation has yet to be introduced.

Click here to read about my part
in the BBC documentary The Last Circus Elephant
There’s no getting away from the fact that Ellicott’s book is part of the ongoing campaign for a ban - and many fans and circus industry insiders won't like it for that reason.

It is, however, an important record of a landmark case and in attempting to untangle the complex issues involved, Ellicott includes plenty that the animal rights groups that protested Roberts' circus won't like either.

Ellicott was one of the reporters that originally broke the story of Anne in the Daily Mail. The paper campaigned and fundraised to get the elderly Anne moved from the circus to Longleat Safari Park and, on the surface, Saving Anne plays to the expectations of readers who want a clear cut story of an abused animal given a happy ending.

Ellicott takes the view “it is now almost universally agreed on that elephants shouldn’t perform in circuses.” She heavily lays on the “terrible suffering” of Anne at the hands of Nitu at a time in the twilight of her career when, as the last survivor of Bobby’s herd, the arthritis-stricken elephant was too old to perform and the ageing Roberts was himself too ill to personally care for her.

A lot of space is given to the views of Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips, the husband and wife founders of Animal Defenders International who spent 15 years trying to infiltrate Roberts’ circus before obtaining the undercover footage. Further anti-circus opinion is provided by Dr Ros Clubb of the RSPCA and Professor Stephen Harris, the latter a long term opponent of circuses who is currently heading a study of circus animals on behalf of the Welsh government (Read more about that here).

But Ellicott's concise, journalistic book also looks at the story from the point of view of the Roberts family, and Roberts is portrayed perhaps surprisingly sympathetically as a "victim of circumstances."

It was Ellicott who first showed ADI’s video to Bobby and his wife Moira. She saw their reaction first hand - they were as disgusted by Nitu’s actions as anyone else. She clearly warmed to the couple’s sincerity and devotes two chapters to an interview with the couple carried out especially for this book.

As the author writes, “It’s hard not to be fascinated by the Robertses lives.”

Anne at Longleat
The most compelling chapter relates the history of the circus family’s illustrious lineage and glory days; Anne’s meetings with the Queen, Princess Anne and other celebrities; and Bobby’s romance with Moira, the fairground girl who ran away with the circus. In their early days the couple had a western act and Bobby accidentally shot off the finger on which she wore her wedding ring. Moira hid the injury from both Bobby and the audience and finished the act.

Back in the present, Ellicott airs the Robertses' belief that they were set up: that Nitu was paid to attack Anne; that it was suspicious that he never normally wore a hat, only in the video to hide his face, as if he knew he was being filmed. That he conveniently disappeared the morning the news broke, despite speaking no English and having no money as he hadn’t been paid.

It’s also suggested he hit Anne with a plastic pitchfork and that the thwack of a metal bar was overdubbed - a theory consistent with the observation that the noise was “almost the only sound on the video” - as well as with Anne’s minimal reaction to the blows and subsequent lack of marks on her body.

The truth about Nitu may never be known as animal cruelty is deemed too minor an offence to extradite him from Romania, where he fled to.

Bobby took the fall for employing a keeper who betrayed his trust and Ellicott stresses that there's no evidence he was personally cruel or knew what Nitu was doing.

The book also makes clear that Anne wasn’t seized from the Robertses; they gave her away voluntarily, and had in fact been looking into her retirement for a few years, but sanctuaries are hard to find in the UK and Anne was too frail to fly to America.

YouTube footage of Anne leaving the circus HQ.
When Anne moved to Longleat, Bobby walked her into the transporter  (This can be viewed on YouTube. With not a bull-hook in sight he leads her by the trunk with his hands). He was perplexed when her new owners wouldn’t walk her out without chaining her legs together. He was also apprehensive of her new keepers’ bull-hooks - it was the first time Anne had seen such an instrument.

Anne looks in much better condition in the video than she is described by the animal rights lobby. One of the new keepers in fact angered the animal rights groups by saying on TV “Hats off to Bobby” for getting Europe’s oldest elephant to such an advanced aged (around 60-years-old) in such good shape. The safari park depended on Roberts showing them how to look after Anne in her first few days there.

The move to Longleat was, in fact, a “slap in the face” to the circus-hating ADI, as it had been founded by the Chipperfield circus family.

It’s a shame Ellicott ultimately supports a ban on the grounds of changing times, and that she didn’t speak to more supporters of animals in the circus. After pages of anti-circus rhetoric by Ros Clubb and Stephen Harris, a couple of short quotes from Martin Lacey Sr and Chris Barltrop are taken from old Daily Mail articles.

My Daily Telegraph interview
with Thomas Chipperfield.
Thomas Chipperfield is however described as “the most interesting defender of circus animals” and some of his “fascinating insights” into training are quoted from the interview I did with him in the Daily Telegraph.

Elephant osteopath Tony Nevin, meanwhile, treated Anne while she was travelling with the circus in 2007 and comments that she was mentally more content than most zoo elephants, which he attributes to her varied life: “She got to swim in the sea, go on beaches, go across moorland. All sorts of stuff she’s done over the years. Then you look at most zoo elephants and they’re plodding around the same paddock.”

Ultimately, Anne is portrayed as happy in her purpose-built £1.2 million new home where she listens to Classic FM, rolls in the sand and eats wine gums “just like any old lady.”

Bobby, meanwhile, is labelled  "a misunderstood relic of a past era who had the best intentions," - a man who loved his animals and couldn't understand why what was acceptable 30 years ago was no longer accepted today.

But was he actually ahead of his time, a genuine elephant whisperer who needed no bull-hook to command his herd, just his voice and a bond built up in a lifetime?

Perhaps there are more out there like him, or will be, who could one day take elephants back into Los Angeles regardless of a ban on the bull-hook.

Saving Anne the Elephant by Claire Ellicott is published by John Blake and available from Amazon.

Further reading: For more on the bull-hook, click here to read Ringling Elephants and the Ankus - Is it Time to Let Circuses off the Hook?


  1. My thanks to all the elephant trainers who have since contacted me on Facebook to say that bull-hooks were seldom used in UK circuses until recently and that most worked with a walking stick and riding crop. One commented that months would pass without him touching an elephant with anything except his hands.

  2. Very interesting. And, happy world circus day to you!