In the 19th century, ‘seeing the elephant’ meant knowing the world. These days, there’s not much left to see.
A few days before the final New York City performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, I received an email warning to be prepared for a chilly stadium. This year’s theme, “Out of This World,” puts the dying circus on ice.
This is the first year the 146-year-old “Greatest Show on Earth” goes on without elephants. This year is also the circus’s last. Setting the show on an ice skating rink seems to underscore the elephants’ absence. On May 21, the brand will pack up the ring for good at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Removing the elephants brought a decline in ticket sales, says Feld Entertainment, producers of the famous circus since 1982. Yet Brooklyn’s Barclay Center was filled to capacity on a frigid night in early March to watch this hallmark of the entertainment industry disappear from “this world” forever.
The way things are going, wild elephants aren’t long for this world either.
The last time I attended the circus was at the age of 10, in 1971. My mother had to beg my father to take us to see the show at the Chicago Stadium, a venue he avoided due to its unsafe location. Like an elephant, my father was voluminous. I used to wonder how such an imposing man could be so afraid of people. After the show, on our way back to the car, the balloon man called my father “fatso.” I’d already started begging for one of the red-white-and-blue squiggled balloons the equally-fat balloon man was selling. Despite my father’s offense at being called “fatso,” my mother insisted I get one, explaining in low tones that circus people don’t live by the same rules of politeness as the rest of us.
The balloon obscured the rear view mirror as we drove back to the suburbs, further irritating my father. He would never take us to the circus again.
Forty-six years later, the circus stands out in my mind as family entertainment on steroids. Risky, thrilling, tinged with the aroma of the African savannah. In 1971, Philippe Petit, renowned for wire-walking between the Twin Towers in 1974, performed on the tightrope for Ringling Bros. without a net. Snarling tigers jumped through fiery hoops. Acrobats hurled muscular bodies through the air to my dark hope that one might fall. A clown in top hat and tails clung to a comically tall Victorian lantern that perilously swayed over a bucket of water on the floor below. Of course the freaks were gone by then. There was no bearded lady, no “Siamese” twins, no strong man in leopard trunks. Just humans lording it over animals when they weren’t demonstrating their own physical prowess.
This would be the last time I’d see the elephants at the circus. They seemed to fill the stadium as they paraded trunk-to-tail around the dazzling ring, their huge lashed eyes conveying a hint of frustration tempered by incredible patience. Their stunts looked humiliating, the “hand stands” in particular.
The circus pays homage to such tensions, to the dominion of man over fierce and exotic creatures. It is a challenge to nature and to chance. Cultural shifts have denied this original purpose, trading danger and excitement for safety and the protection of animals.
Tyke, the renegade elephant who fatally attacked her trainer before a live audience in Hawaii in 1994, led to the phasing out of circus animals. After head butting and kicking her trainer, Tyke blasted out of the arena and into the streets of Honolulu, where it took 87 bullets to kill her. You can watch Tyke’s demise on YouTube, the noble elephant going down among cars in a cloud of smog, still wearing her silly red headdress.
Speaking of concern for elephants, there is a moment in the BBC nature series “Africa” in which a mother elephant separates from the herd to stay with her dying calf, the victim of a drought-stricken savannah. Mother tenderly nudges her offspring, trying in vain to keep it alive. When the calf dies, tears fall from her eyes. Meanwhile, the herd has migrated several miles across the inhospitable landscape. Without them, the mother elephant might also die. This heart-rending scene caused outrage in viewers demanding to know why the crew did not attempt to save the dehydrated calf. Naturalist Sir David Attenborough claimed intervention would have stressed the mother even more.
Nature is a cruel taskmaster. As our increasing population threatens elephants, elephants have started trampling crops and pulling villagers out of their beds and crushing them to death. This fairly recent trend has created a new term: H.E.C. or “Human-Elephant Conflict.” It could be the beginning of the end. If elephants don’t have a place to thrive, taking them out of the circus is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of looking out for their interests.
Technology having removed most physical activity from my days, I resolve to walk the two miles to Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. In front of me, children clasp their parents’ hands. Activists wave pictures of chained animals in the faces of families entering the stadium.
As I make my way to my seat, the cold from the icy stage creates a morgue-like atmosphere. The pre-show displays the tigers, a warm dose of orange contained within a chain link fence. “Here, Kashmir,” croons the trainer in his blue-and-red-spangled spangled uniform, “Good boy, Kashmir.” Kashmir appears relieved to return to the train of cages. The stage grows dark as the cages recede. “The Final Countdown” starts playing.
Starry lighting provides a galactic effect, followed by astronauts performing “in zero gravity” on a spindly apparatus. Their obvious safety cords (airbrushed out of the program) get the show off to a disappointing start. Large Christmas-like ornaments suspended moderately high above the ice suddenly break open to grinning women straddling two shells, while the evil Tatiana, with the goal of “complete circus domination,” glides across the frozen floor in a plastic iceberg. The cool-toned costumes?—?some accented in iridescent fluorescent yellows?—?come across as feeble. While watching the clowns vamp and skate in barbaric circles, I almost miss the return of the Big Cats.
Thanks to animal rights activists, the lions and tigers are no longer forced to perform risky stunts. In a zoo, one might witness a beast wandering a few feet before slumping to the ground, so the effect of seeing them lie down on command at a circus doesn’t seem all that impressive. There are some leaps over low obstacles, and the tigers perch on stools, allowing admiration of their “remarkable beauty.” A lion kisses the trainer in Hollywood fashion. The trapeze artists enthrall the audience. I’m thrilled when one acrobat misses the hands of his swinging partner, but a safe landing in the net below is never a question. An agile little dog, some bemused pigs, and a team of regal llamas steal the show, proving that we are most amazed when animals remind us of their likeness to ourselves.
During intermission, a big TV screen presents the plight of endangered animals, and (somewhat defensively, it seems) how well the retired elephants are cared for in their Florida sanctuary, which was established after Tyke’s death. We are encouraged to do more research on endangered wildlife as the icy floor emanates its chill.
It has been said that circuses and elephants will always go together. It began when Jumbo, the African elephant whose name is synonymous with the glorious excess of the circus, was purchased from a London zoo by PT Barnum in 1882. The story goes that Barnum was utterly enchanted by seeing Jumbo cheerfully carrying children on his back in an elephant saddle. Jumbo fiercely resisted leaving the zoo for a short-lived career in the circus. Riding the noisy trains would scare him into reaching out his trunk to touch his trainer, Scotty, lying in a nearby bunk, for assurance. In retrospect, given that Jumbo would be hit and killed by a train in 1885, his fear seems justified.
After displaying a taxidermy Jumbo at his circus for a while, Barnum would donate the elephant’s remains to Tufts University in Boston, where the beloved mascot presided over a study hall. A 1975 fire would reduce the famous elephant to ashes now kept at Tufts in a peanut butter jar. Jumbo’s tail is all that remains intact.
Back in the late 19th century, “to see the elephant” meant knowing the world. It connoted a certain level of sophistication, of having seen it all. Once home, having missed the elephants at the circus, I went online in the comfort of my cage to watch videos of their 2016 performances. As we push so many species to the brink, let’s not forget the elephants’ sacrifice. Soon there might be little left to see in “this world” but ourselves.