An animal welfare group has been criticised by a judge for handing footage of a circus elephant being abused to the media before the police.
Animal Defenders International (ADI) was attacked by District Judge David Chinnery after he gave a conditional discharge to circus owner Bobby Roberts, 69, after convicting him of three animal cruelty charges relating to Anne, a 60-year-old Asian elephant.
He told Northampton Crown Court that ADI's decision to give video footage of the pitchfork attacks by one of Roberts' employees to the media before any legal proceedings took place led to the owner and his wife being "tried by the public", their granddaughter being bullied at school and threats being made on Facebook. He also revealed that police were investigating threats made to the defendants by email and on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook.
ADI's chief executive Jan Creamer, described the sentence given to Roberts, which did not include a ban on keeping animals, as "derisory" and said it "provides no faith that the Animal Welfare Act can protect animals in circuses".
Speaking at the end of the five-day trial, Judge Chinnery said: "This is an emotive case involving as it does acts of extreme cruelty to a defenceless animal. 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.
"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 usually brought by the RSPCA 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 and if appropriate work with the owner to re-home the animal or ensure its future in its current environment.
"The conclusion to which I am drawn therefore is that Anne's welfare was only a part of the objective by ADI; they have a wider agenda, much of which has been alluded to by defence counsel."
Chinnery told Roberts, who owns Super Circus in Polebrook, Cambridgeshire, that while he did not attack the animal himself he failed to properly look after Anne, convicting him of causing the elephant unnecessary suffering, failing to take reasonable steps to prevent an employee from causing unnecessary suffering, and failing to ensure the elephant's needs were met by not giving her medication for her arthritis.
His wife Moira, 75, was cleared of all three charges. The court had been shown footage filmed covertly by ADI between January 21 and February 15 last year. It 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 "disgusting and disgraceful" behaviour of the groom, is believed to be back in his native Romania, and would have fired him if he had know. Roberts also told the court that he was unaware that Anne had been constantly chained. The circus owner could be seen entering the barn four times over the three-week filming period but never asked the groom to unchain Anne. He claimed he had been too ill to properly supervise the staff.