German circus family on tour in Ireland say performing elephants are 'like family'
This is the German circus which has sparked a wave of angry protests from animals rights groups as they tour Ireland.
But this week, the under-fire owners insisted they will never part with the Indian female elephants who they regard as "family".
The Belly Wien circus is currently camped in Gorey, Co Wexford and is home to 70 animals including a new three-day-old baby camel called Paddy.
Activists clashed with the circus performers this week when the Asian elephants were paraded in front of the big top in the seaside town to attract audiences.
Their arrival in Ireland over a month ago sparked the Big Stop campaign by the ISPCA, calling for a complete ban on the use of wild animals in circuses in Ireland on the grounds that they suffer long-term psychological and physical problems.
The three elephants: Syla, Lyka and Limara
When the Sunday World went behind the scenes this week, the three female elephants were unchained in a large, airy tent chewing on bales of hay with hot air blowing through to keep them warm.
Trapeze artist and ringmaster, Nadia Scholl, rejects cruelty claims saying the elephants called Syla, Lyka and Limara are like family pets.
She said: "I am 30, so these elephants are with us all of our lives. I grew up on their trunk. They are like family. Syla and Lyka are 45, and Limara is 47.
"There are no more elephants coming into Europe so why not let the last elephants, I think there are 25 altogether, die with their families? New elephants cannot come into Europe anymore.
"You could not send them back into the wild. They would not know what to do. They would not survive. We give them their food. They only know the circus.
"They get washed here every day. They get food and drink, they are supported by us. We protect them. We could give them to a zoo but we would never give them away, never. Even if all the world said no more animals, we would buy a farm and make our own zoo."
Nadia and Roman shows us the elephants
Dr Andrew Kelly, CEO of the ISPCA, is adamant the evidence shows quite clearly that travelling circuses cannot provide a suitable environment for wild animals like the three female elephants.
"They are banned in a number of EU countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Greece and a couple of others. There are no regulations at all in Ireland.
"There was the story of Anne the elephant in the Great British Circus. Animal Defenders International got some undercover footage of her being abused by her keeper with a pitchfork.
"We were able to find out that the elephant had been in the circus for 54 years on her own and had been taken from the wild as a six-month-old baby. I wouldn't be surprised if these three adults suffered a similar fate."
Protestors at the circus
Nadia said the elephants were brought to Europe from an elephant orphanage in the 1970s, after their parents were killed for their ivory.
On appearances, the circus staff and their children move freely around the wild elephants without using bull whips although there are no open fields for the animals to roam in the Gorey site next to a car park.
Nadia says this is not always the case and the elephants often go for walks and even swims with their owners.
"Our elephants are free all day. Now we have a smaller ground. In a zoo they live in one big cage. Sometimes the grounds are small and sometimes they are very big. We go with them swimming and we go with them for a walk."
In the spotlessly clean and highly organised Belly Wien circus, the animals are stabled in clean stalls with fresh food and water alongside a fleet of gleaming caravans and trailers.
Antonio Renz and Dylaila Zinnecker grew up around the elephants
But the three elderly female elephants travelling with a circus full of wild animals around Ireland have been provoking a storm of protests from animal rights activists.
"The constant travelling, the noises, the crowds, the handling are all well known stressors for wild animals," said Dr Kelly.
"We are calling for a ban on wild animals in circuses.
"The animals appear to be well fed and well watered but these elephants would have been taken from the wild or been bred by captive mothers.
"The training is always done out of sight. It's very secretive but we know elephants trained in the Asian sub-content for elephant rides are broken, not in the way horses are broken. They are essentially physically abused until they surrender. We suspect that is the case with circus animals."
Dr Kelly also said there are also major objections to the use of bull whips and chains to control the elephants.
Ring master and trapeze artist, Nadia Scholl, insists the tricks performed by the elephants mimic "natural behaviours" and also defended the use of chains and bull whips on the Indian mammals.
She said: "You must have a bull hook, in every zoo they have this, in case something happens. It is the emergency stick to hold them quiet but we never had this problem. They are very quiet elephants."
She said the circus do not object to animal rights protesters but are shocked at the aggressiveness of Irish protesters.
Paddy the camel is just a few days old
She said: "In Mullingar and Virginia the protesters were screaming at our audiences and mothers and children were walking away. It's always the same people.
"On St. Patrick's Day we had to get the police, they were very aggressive and screaming and using terrible words. In Gorey, they blocked the road. We have been getting threatening emails. We have never had this before."
She said the circus has also been subjected to a very aggressive social media campaign on Facebook but urged the protesters to visit the elephants at the circus.
"I always say send the veterinarians. We have the best conditions for animals, we have containers and they are never in the wet. Come and see us.
"It's good that the protestors are there but they should go to Romania where they have dancing bears on a chain or where the dolphins all get killed. That is where it is necessary but not here. Come and see for yourself. We are hardworking, honest people."