Pay up or the last bear will die, says circus

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There's no phone number, and it does not advertise. But the Independent on Sunday tracked it down to a small village in deepest Lincolnshire. Gravel paths marked out a scrapyard-like landscape of caravans, trucks, billboards - and elephants and zebras in cages.

There's no phone number, and it does not advertise. But the Independent on Sunday tracked it down to a small village in deepest Lincolnshire. Gravel paths marked out a scrapyard-like landscape of caravans, trucks, billboards - and elephants and zebras in cages.

This is Circus King, one of the few circuses in Britain that still use animals, and somewhere near might be Fred, the last remaining - and reportedly sick - "performing" bear in the country, the focus of a bitter struggle between animal welfare organisations and the bear's owner.

This is the circus's winter quarters, and home to Fred. There were three elephants, sharing a sliced loaf for lunch. One appeared to display extreme behaviour associated with confinement, swaying its head and rocking from side to side. Not content with outraging the sensibilities of animal lovers by making Fred, an eight-year-old black bear, roll in a barrel and slip down a slide, the circus has put a price on his life, threatening to have him put down unless someone buys him - for £40,000.

The threat has angered animal welfare organisations, which have accused Circus King owner Jeffrey Mackie of "emotional blackmail". The RSPCA, which has also been refused access to Fred, is prepared to take the bear into care immediately, but will not hand over one penny.

"If he can't look after Fred in the way he should be looked after, then he should relinquish him," said Julie Briggs, a spokeswoman for the society. "To do this is simply cold and callous. Fred has lived an unnatural lifestyle all his life. This is nothing less than emotional blackmail."

Though there is no time limit, Mr Mackie said: "Fred is going nowhere free of charge apart from being incinerated. It's up to an animal rights group or some other tossers to buy him."

A notice calling for the lump sum to save Fred has been placed on a hoarding outside the winter home of the circus at Honington, near Grantham, Lincolnshire. The message reads: "One Royal Canadian Black Bear for sale through no fault of his own to avoid having him put down. £40,000. No offers. (Real live teddy!)".

The IoS was denied access to Fred. "That would defeat the object," said Mr Mackie. "Just tell people he's in a bad way. That should get them handing over the money."

Instead, the IoS was shown what Mr Mackie described as an "MoT" for the bear, signed by a vet in October 1998, which said he was fine, though overweight. Mr Mackie said this was "middle-aged spread", but according to Diane Westbrook, of the Captive Animals Protection Society, Fred is lethargic in the ring and stays on show for barely two minutes. "I worry for his health," she said. "He's only eight and bears should live for 20 years."

The RSPCA admits Fred's future is uncertain. Bought by Mr Mackie for £250 when five months old, he would not now survive in the wild. There is no zoo or wildlife park in Britain that could take him. The society is negotiating with an animal sanctuary in Canada to see if it will take care of him. There is a precedent: eight years ago, a black bear, Yogi, was removed from a British circus and taken to the same sanctuary, where he made a good recovery.

The decision to sell Fred was deliberately provocative. Mr Mackie claims the sale has been forced upon him by animal rights organisations, which, he alleges, have launched acid attacks on the circus and forced him to close his summer season early.

Mr Mackie insists his show sells out. "The public love what we do," he said. "We put on a super show and our last performance in Barnsley was packed. They were crying out for more." Circus King thwarts animal rights protesters by only putting up posters on the day it arrives at a new venue.

There are 12 large circuses with performing animals touring Britain, and nine smaller ones. The Association of Circus Proprietors estimates that the number of visits to animal circuses in Britain is around three million a year - a figure disputed by animal welfare organisations.

Although more than 100 local authorities have banned animal circus from their land, they can still perform on private land. The All Party Group for Animal Welfare, which includes the RSPCA and the Born Free Foundation, recommended that animals be outlawed from circuses. The British Veterinary Association, which also contributed to the report, believes stricter licensing is required.

As recently as the early 20th century it was not uncommon for performing bears in England to be dressed in a tuxedo and made to smoke a cigar. Performing bears remain popular abroad, particularly in Greece and Turkey. They are also common in India.

Today, public opinion has turned against the use of animals in circuses. Since the early 1980s, companies such as Cirque du Soleil have foregone animal acts to create breathtaking human spectacles.

The Association of Circus Proprietors declined to comment on Mr Mackie's actions, describing him as "very much an individual". The association opposes a ban on circus animals, but believes better regulation is required. "We want specific control of performing animals through licensing agreements," said Malcolm Clay, the association's secretary.