Ringling Bros. has announced they will no longer feature performing elephants on the circus beginning in 2018. The following neither condemns nor celebrates that decision, and offers no opinion on the issue of whether elephants should or should not perform in circuses. It’s a snapshot of an era that is about to end.
Tichi was a 4 ton Asian elephant. She was also my ride during ten minutes or so of each Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance. It was the best part of my job, and the part of the show I looked forward to most.
(KB Fun Fact: When you ride an elephant, you hook your feet under their ears so you don’t get bounced off when they start to run.)
One day, we were lined up with 23 other elephants and their respective riders, all ready to go out on the arena floor to entertain 12,000 children of all ages. We were positioned next to the audience-filled bleachers and were waiting for our cue. A man in the bleachers held out a handful of…something. I didn’t know what it was. Cotton Candy? Popcorn? No clue. Whatever it was, he was offering it to Tichi to eat. Elephants LOVE food, so Tichi’s trunk began to sneak slowly upward to take whatever the guy was offering. I say “sneak” because she knew she wasn’t supposed to take it.
I started yelling at the guy, “DO NOT FEED THIS ELEPHANT!” He just grinned and leaned out further to hand Tichi the….whatever it was. I started to panic. I didn’t know what he was trying to feed her, and had no idea if it was something that would hurt her. I looked desperately around for a groom, or Tichi’s trainer and presenter, Gunther Gebel-Williams.
Gunther was arguably the greatest animal trainer in history. Born in Poland, he grew up on a circus in Germany. By the time I worked with him, he had been a star in America for 20 years. No one in the circus worked harder than Gunther. He personally supervised the care and training of each animal on the Ringling show. Horses, tigers, elephants, llamas, Gunther worked with them all, and on the same show. He even drove the bus in which he and his family lived from city to city. He was the hardest-working person in showbusiness, bar none.
Gunther was nowhere to be found as Tichi reached for the food. I did the only thing a clown in my situation could do. I gave Tichi the command to “back up”. I imitated Gunther’s voice, and gave the command in German, the language he used with his animals. I must have done a good enough job to fool her because she immediately backed up and got into line….just as Gunther came around the corner. He had heard me! With a murderous fire in his eyes, he jabbed his index finger toward me in a gesture that meant, “You come see me after the show.” I was doomed. Dead man walking. This was my last day as a circus clown. I knew it, and Gunther knew I knew it. Tichi knew it too.
(KB Fun Fact: Messing with Gunther’s animals was a one-way ticket off the show at best, and a potential ass-kicking at worst. He supported his animals over humans every time, and without reservation.)
I reported as ordered. In his thick German accent, Gunther demanded an explanation.
I said, “Gunther, the guy was trying to feed Tichi. I couldn’t find anyone who could get her to stop, so I gave her the command in your voice hoping to fool her back into line. I know I’m not supposed to do that, but I’d rather get fired than see her get hurt.”
He glared at me. It must have been for just a few seconds, but it felt like a lifetime.
“Clownie. That was the only thing you could have said that would save your job. Go back to work.”
Here’s me and my gal…..
Gunther, with whom it was unwise to trifle, and his close friend…