Animal welfare campaigners who secretly filmed a performing elephant being chained and hit with a pitchfork have condemned the “derisory” sentence given to a circus owner convicted of causing unnecessary suffering to the animal.
Bobby Roberts was also convicted of failing to prevent an employee from repeatedly beating 60-year-old Anne, an Asian elephant.
In addition, Roberts, 69, who ran Super Circus in Polebrook, Cambridgeshire, failed to ensure her needs were met by not giving her medication for arthritis.
He was given a three-year conditional discharge at Northampton Crown Court but was not ordered to pay costs and not banned from owning animals.
His wife Moira, 75, was cleared of all three charges by district judge David Chinnery following a five-day trial.
Animal Defenders International (ADI), the organisation that covertly filmed the abuse, criticised the sentence.
Chief executive Jan Creamer said: “Despite the considerable suffering caused to Anne the elephant, the sentencing meted out to Mr Roberts is derisory and provides no faith that the Animal Welfare Act can protect animals in circuses.
“How well she is now in comparison shows you that she suffered over a long period of time and this is entirely the wrong message. This doesn’t make owners responsible for what happens to their animals.”
The court had been shown footage filmed covertly by ADI between January 21 and February 15, last year which showed Anne constantly chained up in a barn at the circus’s winter quarters by one foot and one hind leg and being struck repeatedly with a pitchfork by her groom.
Roberts told the court he had no idea of the actions of the groom and it was “disgusting and disgraceful” behaviour. He said if he had known, he would have fired the groom, who is believed to be back home in Romania.
He also told the court he was unaware Anne had been constantly chained and that the groom had not followed his instructions to let her loose in a cordoned-off area when possible.
A former groom testified that he had never been instructed to keep the elephant permanently chained nor was it suggested he should beat her.
The case was originally a private prosecution initiated by ADI; however, following representation from the group’s legal representatives, the Director of Public Prosecutions agreed the Crown Prosecution Service would take on the case as it was in the “public interest”.
Giving his verdict, however, the judge criticised ADI and the way campaigners had obtained the footage, and suggested their motives were not purely those of welfare.
He said: “This is an emotive case involving as it does acts of extreme cruelty to a defenceless animal.
“The difficulty, however, is that, by releasing the footage to the media rather than proceeding through a more appropriate method, two consequences have followed.
“Firstly this couple have been tried by the public, who have only the footage of the cruelty to the animal upon which to make a judgment.
“Secondly, as we now know, it has resulted in their grandchildren being ostracised by their peers on the strength of what has been released to the media.”
The court heard that the couple’s grandchildren have been bullied at school since the footage was released.
“Whilst ADI may claim that their actions had the desired effect, namely the removal of the elephant from its plight, there are two concerns which I have,” he added.
“Firstly, they effectively ‘sat on’ the evidence for two months, leaving the elephant where she was, and, secondly, my experience of dealing with ‘animal cruelty’ cases leads me to understand that, if the plight of such an animal is reported to the RSPCA immediately, they will take steps to ensure the safety of the animal without delay.”
The judge told the court a number of emails and comments made on Facebook and other social networking websites were being investigated by police.