Two circus elephants left to root in rubbish on concrete wasteland

Saturday, May 20th, 2006

Irish Sunday Mirror

These pictures show the grim reality two performing circus elephants had to endure when they are not bringing joy to thousands of children.

For rather than feeding on the lush greenery of their natural habitat in the jungles of Asia or Africa, the magnificent animals were left to rummage for food on a desolate concrete wasteland.

The naturally inquisitive animals use their trunk to search around them but end up rummaging through bags of rubbish. The two were left to roam in a fenced off litter strewn area close to Belfast’s’ Harland and Wolff shipyard where Ireland’s Circus Vegas was pitching its tent.

The vast concrete hell – hole is littered with broken bottles, nails, metal pipes and jagged rocks. It is an image far removed from the performances under the Circus Vegas big top.

Our man went to see for himself how these miserable creatures were forced into performing unnaturally for an audience’s enjoyment.

But now the travelling circus to which the sad elephants belong is believed to be under investigation over its treatment of two female elephants.

On Friday USPCA officers visited the Circus Vegas site in the titanic quarter in Belfast after a tip-off. A member of the public reported distressed Asian elephants wandering around the former shipyard. As our exclusive pictures shows the Circus Vegas animals are left to root about around rubbish dumps. The two traumatised animals are seen stepping over broken glass and broken concrete in search of food, under the shadow of the towering cranes of the nearby shipyard. The Irish circus travels all over the country bringing joy to thousands of youngsters every year but behind the scenes things look very different for these proud and mighty beasts.

Dublin based animal rights activist Bernie Wright was horrified when we showed her the shocking photos. She said “Look at them, they are just waiting to die. They are clearly distressed and look ill. It breaks my heart”. “Circuses, like zoos are a relic from the past and have no function in today’s society”.

Earlier this week the elephants narrowly escaped death on their journey from Belfast to Dublin when their lorry’s tyres blew out as they travelled north on the M50.

But Circus Vegas, owned by the Courtney family and based in Mullingar, County Westmeath, dismissed the incident as being “very minor”.

The performing elephants stand on two legs and lie down when ordered by the circus ringmaster. They are also made to dance, hold each other’s tail and sit on a stool.

Our man was also present when the giant beasts were forced to climb on top of one and other. The poor elephants have been joined in Belfast by a 2.5-ton Rhinoceros named “The magnificent hulk”, a hippo called “Jedi” and a herd of horses. Hulk and Jedi have been left to soak in a makeshift water tanks at the circus site.

There are no laws in Ireland – North or South – specifically regulating the keeping of animals in circuses.

With around seven Irish – based animal circuses at any one time travelling the country, circus bosses need only the minimum of documentation to keep these animals. They need import licences from the Department of Agriculture, if the animals come from oversees. In Ireland a licence is required if a person keeps a dog, but no licence is required to keep an elephant, a rhino or other circus animals.

A five-year-old girl was bitten by a monkey in an incident at an Irish circus last July. After visiting Circus Vegas during an earlier probe, animal rights activists found elephants chained by their leg between acts and sea lions confined to a small pool of dirty water on the back of a lorry after they had performed.

But last night Circus Vegas denied walking a tight rope over its treatment of the Elephantelephants. A spokesman said, “Whatever complaints have been made are totally untrue. Some people think having any animals is wrong – even a pet. They do tricks and are extremely well fed.

They have been born into captivity and are extremely well looked after.

The animals are treated like babies. They are part of the family. They are truly loved and I think the people making the complaints are wrong”.

But USPCA boss Stephen Philpott called for an end to the use of all animals in circuses in Ireland. He said ” All wild animals have evolved a wide range of instinctive behaviours, many of which cannot be expressed in a circus environment and the methods used to repress natural behaviour and force them to act in an unnatural fashion are dubious and stressful”. He added that the animal welfare organisation has called for a ban on the use of big top beasts to be written into an updated animal welfare bill.

“Due to their mobile nature and commercial aims, circuses regularly transport animals over long distances. They are confined for long periods in accommodation designed for travelling. Exercise space, temperature control, ventilation and lighting are inevitably compromised.”

Nuala Donlon of Freedom for Animals is furious. She said Circus Vegas is wrong to force wild animals to live in inadequate conditions as well as making them perform against their nature. She added, “These animals have complex needs that a travelling circus can never provide. It is time that the Department of Agriculture stepped in and took these animals into safety. Despite what the circus owners say, the big top isn’t harmless fun and there is certainly nothing romantic or magical about it.”

But the Department of Agriculture and Food claims it is not responsible for the monitoring of circus animals during their stay in Ireland. New legislation is planned to regulate the movement of such animals. A department spokesman said ” New legislation is to be put in place from January 2007 on the movement of circus animals between member states.”

It is estimated that by 2050 there will no longer be a viable population of Asian elephants left in the world.

Photographs © Sunday Mirror

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