Do you remember the first time you saw a real, live elephant? I was nine years old when a convoy of trucks rolled into the teeny town of Yellow Springs, Ohio (population 6,000) and parked in the empty field next to the high school. It was 1972, so we had no cell phones, but as the Hoxie Bros. Big Three-Ring Circus began to construct a temporary wonderland, word ricocheted among the city’s under-12 residents. For kids as bored as my friends and I often were, this classified as a Major Event, and soon we’d arrived en masse on our banana-seat Schwinns.
At first, we saw only familiar things get unloaded: horses and popcorn makers and the slats that you use to build bleachers. But then, out of the back of a semi-truck-trailer, lumbered an enormous elephant —the first one any of us had ever been near. Then out came another one. We were dumbstruck. They were so big and we were so small. It seemed reasonable to be fearful; couldn’t they crush us with one huge foot? But we weren’t afraid. The creatures looked nothing like Babar in his green three-piece suit. Not one of them was Horton, who heard a Who. These animals weren’t cute or silly. They were real, and they were magnificent.
The photograph below is of a ’70s-era Hoxie Bros. elephant named Irene and captures what we saw over the next few hours: elephants hard at work.
But the truly awesome thing came hours later, after the trainers drove massive stakes into the ground with mallets, tethered an elephant to each one, and left them alone. With no security guards waving us off, and no safety fences to hold us back, we held our breaths, checked our courage, and walked right up to the largest terrestrial animals on Earth, rubbing their leathery tree-trunk legs, patting the undersides of their bellies, and looking up into their sad, wise eyes. I think it’s fair to say the experience was, for each of us, our introduction to euphoria. We grew bigger that day, brimming with our humbling communion with these intelligent, compassionate beasts. In the photo below, the kid in the checked shirt could be me:
I thought about all this last night, when I attended the premiere of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey “Out of This World” show at Staples Center. The performance, which continues at Staples between July 15 and July 19, is being billed as an entirely new genre of circus complete with video projection mapping and “thrill skaters” who seamlessly transition from floor to air to ice (even while wearing stilts). Yes, there are gravity-defying acrobats and tight rope walkers, and lycra-clad athletes on flying trapezes, like in the circuses of old, and clowns with big shoes and lots of what the press release described as “majestic animals” (I spotted lions, tigers, llamas, donkeys, horses, dogs, pigs, goats, and a kangaroo). The new space-themed show also has stunt-motorcycle riders who race around inside a metal sphere, basketball playing unicyclists, and astronauts who balance overhead on a floating, satellite-like contraption. But there is not a single elephant.
In May, two years before they’d promised to, Ringling Bros. retired its elephants. At their final show in Rhode Island, the elephants paraded onto the stage as they had for years, linked to each other trunk-to-tail. At show’s end, after performing a final dance number, they exited the same way, and headed to a facility in Florida.
Of course, that’s a good thing. For years, animal rights groups have drawn attention to Ringling Bros.’ treatment of elephants. In 2011, the circus was fined $270,000 by the USDA for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. But even in the best of circumstances, trucking elephants around the country, no matter how humanely, seems a cruel thing. Elephants are built to walk, swinging their legs as pendulums to propel them forward. Elephants are wild. They are not supposed to dance, or curtsy, or form a living daisy-chain.
What they are born to do is live in family groups led by matriarchs, who are usually the oldest cow in the herd. They are amazing communicators, and not just by making trumpeting sounds. They greet each other by touching and stroking. They protect themselves by listening to the seismic vibrations caused by another elephant running or charging, which can signal alarm. Scientists argue about whether elephants feel emotion, but like dolphins and monkeys, ailing elephants often seem to elicit compassionate responses from others in their herd. They use tools, look out for each other, and even appear to mourn.
Who wouldn’t be glad, then, about the new and improved circus? Sure, the show I experienced as a kid brought both joy and an appreciation for nature right to my doorstep. That was a magical thing. But today’s kids have access to another sort of magic—the technology you’re using to read this. Everyone knows elephants have remarkable memories. I guess I do, too. This morning, though, I realized my nostalgia about my own elephant experience is misplaced. This is the greatest show on Earth:
The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus will be at Staples through July 19, with one, two, or three shows a day. Tickets available at http://staples.center-la.com