Elephant packs her trunk

By Alanah Eriksen, Alanah May Eriksen

After almost 40 years in the circus, Tony Ratcliffe is hanging up his clown shoes and sending his beloved elephant Jumbo to Australia.

The Whirling Bros Circus owner is retiring and giving the star of his show, a 35-year-old, 8ft, four-tonne African elephant to the Western Plains Zoo near Dubbo, New South Wales.

Mr Ratcliffe, 62, and his wife Vicki will take the animal across the Tasman by ship and stay in Australia "as long as it takes" for her to settle in.

"We've given ourselves about three months but it may take longer than that."

Jumbo - the only working African elephant on this side of the equator - will be in an enclosure with three other elephants the same age.

"It will be sad for us to see her go but it's a good opportunity. I think she'll be all right."

Jumbo's circus routine involved waltzing, standing up on two legs and bowing to the audience.

"She's entertained thousands and thousands of children. We've worked with charities, raised money for cancer research, the Heart Foundation."

Mr Ratcliffe has spent a lifetime in the circus industry, working with Weber Bros and Bullens Bros.

He started Whirling Bros in 1969, naming it after the circus featured in the 1959 movie The Big.

Whirling Bros has travelled all over New Zealand and even been taken abroad to the Pacific Islands and New Caledonia.

Mr Ratcliffe traded Jumbo for some logs of wood from a Honolulu zoo in 1978.

He has previously had lions, tigers, monkeys, llamas and donkeys but now has only ponies and dogs left.

He said many people had shown interest in buying the circus, which has a fleet of cars, trailers, mobile homes, and trucks and usually employs about eight performers and support crew.

It has come under fire over the years from animal activist groups for keeping animals in cages. But Mr Ratcliffe says: "The animals are like family to me ... Jumbo has lived with me for 29 years. Everyday of my life I consider her feelings."

Mr Ratcliffe, his wife and his animals are based in a caravan on land in Tuakau when they're not travelling.

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