Step right up, folks, and hear the amazing story of ringmaster Tony Ratcliffe. Watch in awe as Jumbo the giant African elephant captures his heart. Witness as a succession of women break it.

Women and elephants. They're the story of Tony Ratcliffe's life. On the surface he's more an elephant's man than ladies' man - of 60 sunburnt and bloated years.

Yet many a woman has invited him to put his boots under their bed, he reckons. Three made it to the altar and another has lived in his trailer for the past 10 years. None has stuck around like 40-year-old Jumbo.

They're hard work, wives and elephants. But the ringmaster loves all of them.

It's the other women - the do-gooder, "animal rights ladies" with their placards and big-city attitudes - that have really got on his wick.

Whirling Bros is the last circus in New Zealand where exotic wild animals still perform and Ratcliffe, its owner, has been desperate to keep them under the lights.

It was his childhood dream to have African elephants work in his own big top tent.

But now the years and those do-gooder women have got to him.

Jumbo, his companion for the past 28 years, will soon need a retirement home and the ringmaster himself is tired and ailing as he struggles to keep his circus from fading into an anachronism.

It was about 50 years ago that little Anthony Ratcliffe's grandmother took him to the zoo and he first laid eyes on an elephant.

"I'd never seen an elephant in my life until then," he remembers. "I was just overawed with them."

Then the Bullens came to Taumarunui with their circus of flying acrobats - and nine elephants. Young Tony had written to ringmaster Percy Bullen and personally greeted him off the train. It was December 18, 1957, and the 12-year-old's fate was sealed.

He knew right then he was going to join the circus.

Months later he saw the film The Big Circus starring Victor Mature and decided he would go one step further. He would have a circus of his own one day, and call it the Whirling Bros, just like the one in the movie. On his 15th birthday he ran off to join Soles and Worth's circus.

"I didn't' tell my mother," he remembers, and then changes his mind. The stories are getting hazy these days. "Yes I did. My mother gave me five shillings and said 'there you go. That's it'."

Soles and Worths' had five elephants. Ratcliffe helped out carrying water and feed. Watching, learning and waiting. Then he met the Bullens again and they gave him a job.

"I guess that circus people just know who can handle an elephant and who can't. In the circus, your reputation walks in front of you."

Percy Bullen took the boy under his wing and, when he was 17, taught him how to handle the four baby elephants the circus brought from Thailand.

"It's not an opportunity everybody gets," Ratcliffe remembers, lowering his voice as if to emphasise the honour.

"I was very lucky. It was like a dream." At 20 he went to work at Auckland Zoo.

But he quit nine months later when an elderly Asian elephant was put down.

"I was told to go home. It was after hours and they weren't prepared to pay overtime. They were closing the doors and didn't want anyone in with her.

"It pissed me off, to put it mildly, and I lost a lot of respect for zoos that day. I came back in the morning and I knew that the elephant would be dead. I opened the door and there she was.

"Those are the very same people who are judges of me now."

These days protests go with the territory. Campaigners from Safe (Save Animals from Exploitation) protest outside the tent most times the circus rolls in to town. But the way Ratcliffe puts it, they pack up as soon as the show starts.

"The Women", however, are relentless.

They want to free Jumbo. They want to buy Jumbo. They phone Ratcliffe, door-stop him, write to him, and hound him till his blood pressure boils through the top of the tent.

Now he reckons he will have to hand over the reins of the circus to his nephew just to cope. "I don't mind being a clown in the circus, and I don't mind cracking stock whips. And I certainly don't mind working Jumbo and living with her, you know.

"But it's not the elephant that stresses me out. It's dealing with officialdom and half-witted people that bother me from the minute I get out of bed to the minute I go to bed. And women, they're the worst, worst ones. They're like a plague. They never let go.

"They're worse than a rottweiler dog on animal rights, you know. But I say to them, 'why don't you travel with us and form an opinion over a week or two weeks?' They're not there when she's got me up in the night. I don't complain about getting up in the night for her. That's the sad part about it. And it has taken a big toll on me - all these people going on and on and on. They don't leave me alone."

They'll be in Palmerston North this week, no doubt. Even before the big top goes up it's obvious the circus has hit town. On railway land opposite the station, a motley collection of yellow-and-red trailers is parked up.

Vicki, Ratcliffe's partner of a decade, has put a picnic table outside their $80,000 trailer home which she has set with a tablecloth and flowers. Potted plants sit either side of the door and soon she will add the portable picket fence for that extra homely effect.

Over where Jumbo is grazing you can hear the lions roaring inside their windowless trailers, as someone bangs the metal pegs for their enclosure into the ground.

Ratcliffe sits just outside Jumbo's ring of electric fencing, looking at the elephant, and she leans over the fence waving her trunk at him.

"There girl, I'll just get that stuff out of your eyes," he says, getting up to wipe away white gunk with his bare hands.

I ask: "Do you really think Jumbo should stay with you?" And he looks back, tired.

"I got up this morning and the first thing I see is an elephant's eye looking around the corner at me. And I say 'good morning' and she rumbles, you know. If she wants me at night she taps on the side of the wagon and, you know, these are the things that tell me."

He started Whirling Bros in 1977 with a pair of poodles and an old tent filled with holes. But he was determined to get his elephant. First they bought a baby from Holland but it died in a storm at sea. "It was tragic," he says.

So when he found Jumbo, unwanted and bullied by the Asiatic elephants at Honolulu Zoo, he decided to fly her over.

Her mother had been killed in a cull in Namibia where Jumbo was captured, sold first to Seaworld in New York and then to Honolulu. Some of the women activists have suggested she should go back to Africa. But that's ludicrous, Ratcliffe says. They shoot them in the wild. She would end up with tourists riding on her back and would hate it.

No. If his health won't hold out and he can't stay with her at the circus, she'll probably have to go to a zoo here or in Australia, or perhaps somewhere like Orana Park in Christchurch. There are offers, and suggestions, all the time.

But Ratcliffe is uneasy. No one wants to pay him - either for the elephant or his wages to look after her. "No one has any answers."

The lions and monkeys are easier to repatriate. His monkeys have already left for a park and the lions will be similarly re-homed in September. Six miniature ponies, currently in training, will take their place.

After several decades, Ratcliffe doesn't want the responsibility of lions and has decided they don't belong in a circus. Elephants, however, are different. "The elephant is a nomadic animal," he says. "They enjoy travelling. They enjoy working."

How does he know? "I've seen her around here when there is public around and she will go through her routine." What about companionship? Don't they need other elephants? "Um, yeah, they do. They need companions."

And then he wafts into a story about how he had intended to have other elephants but he never realised how hard it would be to get them. "People say you're living in the Dark Ages," I say.

"Well, hey," Ratcliffe says, and sitting bolt upright he starts pointing into the air between us.

"Hey. Listen. The box office tells the story, alright? I've had queues a mile long wanting to go to the circus, alright? That's what tells the story.

"The other day a mother brought a little blind boy to the circus. Never touched an elephant in his life. Never touched a horse. Never sat on a horse. And he came, and I got Jumbo and he was touching her.

"These are the things that people don't see. People really are very blind. They only see what they want their eyes to see and they don't see the other side of the coin."

Around the world, however, the tide is turning against him.

The RSPCA recently advised that life in the circus was never good for a wild animal and the British government has announced it intends to have the practise banned.

There, only three circuses with exotic animals remain.

Meanwhile, Ratcliffe fights local councils imposing ever steeper costs on his land rental. He fights "those women".

And sometimes he fights journalists. "Be careful how you do this," he says.

"If it's not written in the right context it comes back and they use it on me."

Like this story: In Napier, 1973, a 32-year-old man with gang connections wanted to take out Ratcliffe's 13-year-old stepdaughter. There was a fight, Ratcliffe swung at him with a tent pole and three days later the guy was dead.

The ringmaster served two-and-a-half years in jail for manslaughter. It was a dark, sad time he wants desperately to forget. "Since then I've never been in trouble in my life."

"There's got to be good sides to people, surely," he had implored earlier. "I have no qualifications. I don't have a degree in handling animals; I don't have a Bachelor of Science degree or anything like that. I'm purely an elephant man. And you know, I care, I really care about what happens to her."

In the life of a man who desperately loves a giant African elephant kept captive thousands of kilometres from her natural home, nothing is ever that black and white.