ERA awards elephant handler $26,000

Tony Ratcliffe with Jumbo. File photo / Wairarapa Times-Age
Tony Ratcliffe with Jumbo. File photo / Wairarapa Times-Age

An elephant handler was sacked after being told that his long-time charge, Jumbo, was "lost", only to read in a newspaper the animal had been given to the RSPCA.

Tony Ratcliffe, who ran Whirling Bros Circus and looked after Jumbo for about 30 years, has been awarded more than $26,000 after he took Australian-based Loritz Bros circus owner Harry Weber to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) for unjustified dismissal.

Jumbo, an African elephant, attracted attention last year when animal welfare activists claimed she was suffering at the hands of the circus, allegations rejected by Loritz Bros.

According to the ERA decision, released today, Mr Ratcliffe retired from circus ownership in 2008 and arranged to sell Jumbo to Loritz Bros for $70,000 and work for them looking after her. He would be paid $1500 in the hand each week.

However, there was no written employment agreement and once the circus started touring Mr Ratcliffe became concerned no assistant elephant handler had been taken on, as arranged, so he could take a couple of days off each week.

When the circus set up at Waihi at the beginning of November last year, Jumbo was put on display so the public could feed him.

However, Jumbo frightened some children when he put his trunk into the back of a car. This led to an argument with other circus staff about the feeding set up.

After the circus performed in Te Aroha, where there was another argument about the set up, Mr Ratcliffe and his wife were told the circus was going to Tauranga but when they arrived at the racecourse no one else was there.

A circus staff member arrived and told Mr Ratcliffe Jumbo had been "lost" and they were out looking for her.

Mr Weber then phoned Mr Ratcliffe told him he had been sacked and another elephant handler would be taken on.

However, a couple of days later Mr Ratcliffe read in a local newspaper that Jumbo had been given to the RSPCA.

ERA member Eleanor Robinson determined from the evidence that Mr Ratcliffe was an employee and was unjustifiably dismissed.

She ordered Mr Weber pay Mr Ratcliffe $3000 in lost wages and $13,252 for unpaid annual leave.

Ms Robinson said it was not unreasonable to assume the circus had planned to give Jumbo to the RSPCA and had made up the story about him being lost, which would have upset Mr Ratcliffe, who would not have been able to say goodbye to his long-time charge.

Mr Ratcliffe was awarded $10,000 for hurt, humiliation and injury to feelings.

Jumbo now lives at the Franklin Zoo, south of Auckland.

Now called by her original name, Mila, she is being rehabilitated so she could eventually socialise with other elephants should the chance arise.

The 37-year-old elephant could potentially live for another 35 years.


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