Linda Colling: ‘Our life is in the balance’

Circus owner Bobby Roberts with one of his horses.
Circus owner Bobby Roberts with one of his horses.
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BOBBY Roberts Super Circus” proclaim the posters. For ten generations it has been, until now...

Today it faces going bankrupt as animal activists keep up their campaign urging Wearsiders to boycott the show at Whitburn after video footage was released showing Anne, 59,the oldest elephant in Europe, being kicked and beaten.

I don’t believe for one minute that Bobby, 68, or his wife Molly, 72, knew such an evil, monstrous attack was being carried out on their well-loved elephant or that she was at risk.

It is the regret of their lives that they ever employed a Romanian groom, who they say is filmed striking the elephant and kicking her.

He disappeared the day before the story appeared in a national newspaper, and police have been unable to trace him, even at his home in Romania.

I watched the sickening film of the attack on Anne, who is now living out her days at Longleat Safari Park, which the Roberts call every day to see how she is. They miss her so much.

As I step inside their trailer home, the first thing I see is a drawing on the fridge door of Anne. Their twelve-year-old granddaughter Angel Sallai tells me she drew it, as Molly explains: “It’s like losing one of my children.”

The past six weeks have seemed like a lifetime since earlier this year, The Captive Animals’ Protection Society (Caps)released the video footage.

Bobby and Molly have received death threats in letters and e-mails, and Molly says three weeks’ work has been lost out of six: “We have gone through six weeks of hell, and we are in to the seventh week. We have had threatening e-mails and our children were threatened with kidnap. Bobby was threatened with being shot.

“I have a dossier of more than 200 e-mails threatening us. The girls in the booking office have suffered 600 threatening telephone calls, and people who own the land where we were to go have been threatened, and that’s why they cancelled.”

They are relieved that the Whitburn farmer has let the show go on, but they are in a quandary since the Chester-le-Street landowner where they were due to go next week cancelled.

Molly says: “He received 100 phone calls threatening to burn his place down, and he said he couldn’t take the chance. We are hoping to go to Willington and trying to get a temporary licence but that might not come through in time.” And so another week missed.

The day I called, Bobby was trying to get the landowner at Whitley Bay, who has cancelled their two weeks over the Whitsun holiday, to reconsider.

For the first time in a lifetime, the future of the circus hangs in the balance. Molly says: “If it wasn’t for family looking after us we would be bankrupt. This is the worst thing that has happened to us in the whole of our lives. We have a family to look after, our 22 horses and ponies, and a staff of 15.”

There are no lions, tigers or wild animals in this circus, just horses. And campaigns officer for Caps Fiona Peacock told me: “What we are doing is trying to urge them to go animal-free, not to bankrupt them.”

In posters alone they have lost £5,000 because of the cancellations. Molly says: “Blaydon Rugby Club refused to be intimidated by the threats. These people have been wonderful, like the Whitburn farmer. We are in a battle, something we have never faced before. I think I have aged twenty years in the last six weeks.

“Hopefully our public will understand and come and see for themselves. In Whitby we had two ladies going round shops and taking our posters down saying we were cancelled and telling people how cruel we were. All that affects our business.”

“I hope you drop dead. I hope you and your circus go bankrupt” reads one of the many theatening letters Molly shows me. Hate mail has come from Santa Monica, the Netherlands, all over, with messages in the foulest of language.

Then there’s the warnings like this: “Looking at the map, it’s a nice quiet spot to do a job. This is the one and last warning Roberts.”

Then there’s the letters of support – one from their friend, comic Roy Hudd saying: “So terrible to see your good name being dragged through the mud,” and others who know them and give no credence that they could ever have known that Anne, elderly and arthritic, was beaten.

Another letter reads: “I hope that in a few weeks people will forget the unfortunate incident and remember the many hours of pleasure you have given so many people over the years with your circus.”

As Molly talks of how their circus show is two hours of good, clean, family entertainment “full of joy and laughter” I leave her and the big top with her words ringing in my ears: “ Our life is in the balance.”

Bobby was so incensed like Molly when he first saw that video, that if he could have caught the perpetrator his wife doesn’t like to think what he would have done to him.

He is determined to clear their name. Here is a man who loves his animals, so much so that if any are ill he sleeps with them.

Never in a million years could he be cast in the role of a wicked circus owner like August in the newly-released film Water For Elephants, who beats his elephant and ends up getting his just desserts. Why? Because an elephant never forgets ...