The dowager ambles toward an early supper, leaving footprints as round as moons. She is a saggy-skinned and cloudy-eyed old girl, born before India was independent, a subject of the British Raj. They say she is the oldest of her kind there ever has been.
Her man-name is Mysore, for the city in the south of the subcontinent from which she was shipped, 70 years ago. What her own mother called her, how she caressed her and adored her, how she ached and trumpeted when her child was corralled and shipped across two oceans, we can never know.
What we do know is that the life for which Mysore was destined was the life of a circus elephant: the trains and trailers, the spotlights and music, the head stands and hind legs, the awe and laughter, the sharp-pointed bullhooks used in training and the brave little children daring to draw near to the closest creature that we have to a breathing mastodon.
For Mysore, who may have travelled more miles by road and rail than any living person, that life is over; her masters retired her in 2015. On this day—like every other day—she stands at the distant corner of a barren corral on a parcel of scrubland in the centre of Florida and waits until a keeper arrives with loaves of soft bread to be stuffed, a few slices at a time, into her automatic maw. When the bread runs out, so does Mysore, or rather she wheels and sifts away, seemingly content to pass the hours lost in thought, perhaps singing to herself, as Rudyard Kipling wrote,
I will remember what I was. I am sick of rope and chain—
I will remember my old strength and all my forest-affairs.
I will not sell my back to man for a bundle of sugarcane.
I will go out to my own kind, and the wood-folk in their lairs.
On May 1, 2016, in Providence, R.I., and on the same night in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., a dozen of Mysore’s sisters in showbiz and shackles will take their final bows and shed their caparisons as the epoch of the circus elephant draws closer to a close. On that date, the two travelling troupes of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—“The Greatest Show on Earth”—will withdraw all of their pachyderms from public performance after nearly a century and a half, and they will truck them, one last time, down to Polk County, Fla.
Here, they will spend the rest of their days lolling, dust-bathing and munching hay in what suffices for “freedom” in a ravaged world that never again will be safe for any large, rare, beautiful thing.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Janice Aria, a former Ringling clown and dancing-bear-act performer who now is the company’s director of animal stewardship. She is leading a Maclean’s reporter on a tour of Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC), a gated community a few trunk-lengths from Disney World where the Indian elephants in vassalage to Feld Entertainment—the corporate successor to what Phineas T. Barnum, Hachaliah Bailey and Adam Forepaugh began in the 1840s—go to graze, eat soft bread, (artificially) breed and die.
To admit that the Greatest Show on Earth has been defeated by—or, as the company spins it, has grown weary of fighting—the passionate opponents of those who would compel animals to serve as circus stooges or zoological curiosities burns Aria down to her deepest core. She avows that she loves the beasts as much or more than any activist who agitates to “save” them.
Here is the essence of the dispute:
“These are complex, intelligent animals, and this is a lousy, dirty, cruel business, and people see that,” said Ingrid Newman, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, when Ringling announced its elephant-retirement plans last spring after several U.S. municipalities enacted bans against the bullhook. “This is purely a business decision.”
“We’re an entertainment company,” Steve Payne, Feld Entertainment’s VP for communications, tells Maclean’s. “We’re not in the business of playing legislative Whac-A-Mole at city councils across the country. I recognize that this is a philosophical fight, and that elephants are only one level of it. No matter what we do, these people are never going to be happy.”
Ringling’s surrender has come even though the company won more than US$25 million in legal fees and damages from the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, and other organizations that had charged the circus with treating its pachyderms cruelly. The case dragged on for 14 years.
When the Greatest Show on Earth played Washington just after Easter , there were five Indian elephant females in the cast. One of them, a nine-year-old named Mabel, who was born at the Center for Elephant Conservation, showed off her skills at soccer, basketball, bowling and swinging a baseball bat. Later, she and the other four walked around the ring, each grasping her antecedent’s tail with her trunk. They performed headstands and the ringmaster informed the audience that this manoeuvre “is based on natural behaviour.”
The elephants lined up and did the conga —the “animated dancing of mountains,” as a pamphlet for the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers circus described the trick in 1898. Standing among them were three handlers in black, each man holding a bullhook (or ankus, as the mahouts of India have called their bronze-tipped goads for nearly 3,000 years) at the ready. Never, in this performance at least, was it employed.
“Looks like it’s time for an elephant dance party!” crowed the ringmaster, all in red.
Back to Polk County, Fla.: “[The activists’] end game is that there are no animals anywhere in our lives—no circus animals, no pets, all animal products off the menu,” Aria says as our golf cart passes an enclosure where a young female elephant is kicking a ball with what would appear to human eyes to be sagacity, proficiency and humour.
“They like to have something to do,” explains Erik Montgomery, a young wrangler at the CEC.
“I know this elephant,” the director of stewardship sighs. “I saw her born. I saw her first steps. To me, she’s not an ideology. She’s flesh and blood and hair and poop. Yes, I drank the Kool-Aid. Hell, I mixed the Kool-Aid. But I believe that what we were doing was right.”
This is a belief, history will record, that was shared by fewer and fewer citizens of the First World as the 21st century began. Evicted by the Metro Toronto Zoo in 2013, unneeded for the breathtaking human feats of Cirque de Soleil, and soon to be released by the Greatest Show on Earth, the circus elephant’s days are as numbered here as their sad, dwindling census is back home in India and Africa.
“Sad but true: there is no such thing as ‘wild’ anymore,” says Payne. “Nowhere in the world is there a herd of elephants that is not under protection in a human-managed environment.”
“The only way they survive,” concurs Montgomery, “is we ensure their future.”
It has been more than two centuries since the first live specimen of Elephas maximus —known simply as “the Elephant”—joined us on this continent, having served man as a forester, a beast of burden, a bejewelled, princely pet and an engine of war in the Old World since cuneiform times. In Topsy, a history of the circus pachyderm, Michael Daly writes of the pioneering behemoth that was brought to New York in 1796:
“The largest of land mammals was not caged or otherwise restrained and would have needed little effort to snuff out a beholder’s life; it posed no immediate danger only because it so chose . . . Its size seemed less a weapon than a vantage, in the way a mountain is. Its serenity was that of a living peak risen above the fray.”
“Unrestrained” has not been a word often used in conjunction with the North American elephant in the dozens of decades since. Whether tethered, fenced, staked, corralled, chained, roped, picketed, trailered, lashed to a heaving freighter, paraded through the Queens Midtown Tunnel or boxed from town to town in a Pullman car, the pachyderm’s liberty has been sacrificed for generations on the altar of public drollery and (in the case of the better zoological gardens and so-called safari parks) empathy and education.
“I think the climate is changing and people really are not tolerating seeing elephants in these extremely unnatural situations,” says Margaret Whittaker, a former zookeeper and now the director of elephant programs at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where a sisterhood of Asian and African females is afforded 800 hectares of dappled forest in which to ramble and roam.
“Whether it’s zoos or oceanariums or circuses, people are more knowledgeable about what it takes to make a healthy and happy animal,” Whittaker says. “As people become less tolerant of these scenarios, they attend the circus less, they become more outspoken, and there’s more of a groundswell of action.”
Whittaker knows her Elephas. She is the former director of the elephant program at the Houston Zoo. She says that “the life of the travelling elephant is not in their best interest and does not promote a life of wellness.” She alleges that “the relationship is based on domination and control” and that “physical punishment is without a doubt part of a training system based on negative reinforcement.” When she looks into an elephant’s billiard-ball eyes, Whittaker says that “without a doubt I see deep intelligence, a highly emotive animal. They’re deep souls. I know that sounds a little out there, but there’s so much going on inside that big brain.”
“Can the Greatest Show on Earth be the greatest show on Earth without elephants?” Whittaker is asked. She answers:
“I think the greatest show on Earth involves no animals at all.”
Counters a lifelong circus man with one of the greatest names on Earth:
“Getting rid of elephants won’t get rid of the activists,” says John Ringling North II.
North, 75, is a descendant of one of the original five Ringling brothers who started their own circus in 1884. In 2016, he is the proprietor, president and inveterate roadie of a one-ring, tented “mud show” called the Kelly Miller Circus. North’s pint-sized extravaganza, which has no connection to the Ringling Bros./Feld Entertainment colossus, leaves its winter quarters in Oklahoma in the early spring and then encamps for one day each (two at the most) in hundreds of circus-starved towns. Such are the economics of the show that the guy who spins plates on a stick in act one sells popcorn in the stands during act two.
As of 2016, the Kelly Miller Circus boasts of only one elephant—“Anna Louise the Dancing Sensation”—but soon this will be one elephant more than Barnum & Bailey. “I’m very happy with Anna Louise,” says North by phone from Texas. “I don’t understand their thinking,” North says of the activists. “They say that all circus animals are abused; well, how can they say that? When they picket our shows, I go out and say ‘Would you like to see how we care for the animals?’ They always say no.”
This year’s Kelly Miller troupe also shleps camels, zebras, llamas, ducks and what North calls “a really big mule” from village to village, all of them regularly inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture. “The activists don’t even want you to have a dog act,” the last of the Ringlings sniffs.
“Is history on their side?” the showman is asked.
“They’re a small minority,” he replies. “They make a lot of noise but on circus day, the crowds walk right on past them.”
(Canada has prohibited neither the performance nor the importation of circus elephants, and two U.S.-owned, fortysomething females named Shelly and Marie will cross the border this year to take part in the Royal Canadian Circus in Alberta and the Shrine Circus in Ontario. “They have been together and inseparable every minute for more than four decades,” publicist Cathy Sproule says of the elephants. “When one of them has a tummyache, neither of them performs.”)
In the final reckoning, it was the handful of local prohibitions of the bullhook in the U.S. that did in the living pyramids of the Greatest Show on Earth. In Oakland, Calif., in Richmond, Va., and in Los Angeles, hasty amendments to city codes made advance scheduling impossible. So Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey folded their tent.
“I’m not angry,” says Payne, of Feld Entertainment. “I’m a realist. I know that 99 per cent of Americans don’t want to live in the world that these people envision.” The bullhook, Payne says, was just a McGuffin; it might as well have been an umbrella or a candy cane. “I can kill you with a Bic pen, or I can write you a cheque,” he says. “I don’t care what it’s called. I care how it’s used.”
But fighting words are futile now. For better or worse, the elephant’s hour in the spotlight has ended, to be replaced by idleness on a farm in Florida or a woodlot in Tennessee, never again to dance the conga; and never again, in the haunting words of D. H. Lawrence, to
loiter along the river-beds
and drink and browse
and dash in panic through the brake
of forest with the herd,
and sleep in massive silence, and wake
together, without a word.
“They’re ours now from birth to death,” says Aria, passing soft bread to the oldest, wisest elephant of all.
The circus goes on. What remains under the Big Top is a cantering corps of camels, a man inside a cage of tigers, a flurry of fluffy, prancing poodles, daredevils on bikes and twirling from ropes and tiptoeing along the high wire. That, and the Human Cannonball, until the day they come for her, too.