The surprising announcement from Feld Entertainment that Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus is phasing out their live elephant acts by 2018 is, after some thought, a welcome development.
Fascinating as they were, I always thought of how different their lives would have been in the wild. Many of them have been born in captivity but I suspect that living in a circus was not what nature had intended for them. Cities in the US, our neighboring Asheville, NC among them, have banned exotic or wild animal shows in municipal venues. Good for them!
To read a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking account of the life of a circus elephant, pick up a copy of Modoc by Ralph Helfer. It is the true story of a German boy, the son of an elephant trainer, and an elephant both born on the same day in 1896. This unlikely pair spent nearly 80 years together and appeared with Ringling Brothers in the 1940s. They may well have been in Roanoke during that time.
That having been said, I must recount the days of yore when the Ringling Brothers Circus came to town. The whole shebang arrived by train and was parked on a siding by the erstwhile Victory Stadium. School was dismissed at noon so everyone could watch the animals being off loaded and the elephants were the main attraction.
What few remember is the fact that without the elephants’ help there would have been no Big Top; it was long before the days of the mammoth arenas that now populate hundreds of cities. The circus was housed under a massive tent nearly the size of the stadium alongside which it was erected and the elephants were the backbone of the labor force that raised it.
After hundreds of giant stakes were driven into the ground by roustabouts, the tent was unfolded for the elephants, which were positioned for their first act of the day. When dozens of hawsers were attached, the elephants surrounding the circumference would all pull at the same time and the massive Big Top would slowly rise to its majestic height. It all seemed very orderly but the complexities were simplified by the fact it had been done hundreds and hundreds of times. Neither the roustabouts nor the elephants seemed impressed but as spectators we all thought it was miraculous.
By that evening The Greatest Show on Earth was set to go. Along the midway were a series of tents containing the Side Shows or “freak shows,” as they were unkindly named. Barkers shouted what was to be seen in those tents and, unfortunately, they featured all sorts of monstrosities: The world’s oddest humans, the fattest woman, the tallest man, the shortest dwarves, Siamese twins, and one which was particularly intriguing . . . The Wild Woman of Borneo; all were on display.
I can still hear the barker’s sales pitch about that woman, “Step right up, ladies and gents! For one thin dime you will see a sight that your eyes won’t believe. She walks! She talks! She crawls on her belly like a reptile!” That’s as much as I can tell you. My parents did not allow visits to those tents.
The major midway attraction was Gargantua, the Gorilla. Possibly the largest silverback mountain gorilla in history, he had been orphaned and was disfigured by nitric acid thrown in his face by an insane sailor. He was raised by an eccentric lady in Brooklyn, but when he was fully grown, he was sold to Ringling Brothers and, with his mate, Toto, became a star attraction for the financially struggling circus.
Now, in a kinder and gentler time, the sideshows of disfigured men and women, the captive gorillas, and all of the other “attractions” of the Midway are gone, with the elephants soon to be lumbering along behind. I suspect within a few years, the only live animals in the circus will be horses and dogs.
The elephants will be retired to a special preserve in central Florida and eventually, one might think, the public will be allowed to visit in what will simulate their natural habitat, though only few hundred acres rather than half a continent.
All this is progress of a good sort but the memory of seeing a troupe of pachyderms marching up Jefferson Street each trunk holding the tail of the one in front is something that was pretty impressive, particularly when it got us out of school for a half day.
After reading Helfer’s book, one will have different view of elephants and hope that in the distant future they may again roam free and not driven to extinction by the greed for ivory.