TWO circus elephants involved in separate freak incidents were drugged with paracetamol and morphine, it has emerged.
An investigation is under way after tests confirmed fears that the elderly animals' food had been tampered with.
The results of laboratory tests on blood and urine samples were carried out on the elephants from Courtney Brothers' Circus.
Wayne Courtney told the Herald they were "deeply shocked" that anyone would apparently try to sabotage their elephants - and warned that the actions could have ended tragically.
"We knew from the very start that there was something wrong - our handler (Joey Gartner) knew the animals just weren't themselves," he said.
The circus owners demanded the tests after two high-profile incidents involving their elderly elephants in the space of four days in March while camped in Blackpool in Cork.
In the first incident a 38-year old female elephant named Baby broke free from her paddock and dashed into the car park of a shopping centre.
The animal - whose antics were captured on camera phone and broadcast around the world - appeared reluctant to obey her handler's commands.
Four days later, on March 31, a Spanish friend of one of the animal handlers, Justino Munez, was injured when an elephant named Belinda (42) accidentally sat on him after she was pushed by another elephant. Mr Munez was rushed to hospital but is now back with the circus.
Mr Courtney said Mr Gartner was adamant that the elephants' behaviour was not normal and that they seemed quite agitated.
Now, tests by the Veterinary Laboratory Services Ireland confirmed the circus owner's fears - and showed traces of paracetemol and morphine in the elephants' systems.
Mr Courtney, whose circus is performing in Tipperary this week, said: "We have our suspicions about exactly what happened."
The circus owners have now made a formal complaint to gardai. The tragedy for circus fans, Mr Courtney said, is that access to the elephants will now have to be strictly controlled.