Elephants and motherhood, just so

  • Elephant eye.

In a foggy Kansas dawn, when I was six or seven, my father woke me up and took me to watch elephants put up a big top.

My memories are as hazy as the morning mist: papery gray wrinkles, enormous lumbering legs, deft, grasping trunks. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with elephants and the circus, a fascination I recently fed at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

It felt like witnessing the end of an era, with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announcing earlier this year that, after 145 years of featuring elephant acts, it will retire them by 2018 because of the public’s “mood shift.”

On that Kansas morning long ago, I knew nothing of the controversy. For some reason, my mother was absent, perhaps working an overnight shift at the hospital. I watched in awe as the trainer shouted commands and the elephants pulled up huge poles, stretching out what seemed like miles of canvas. The circus venue popped up out of the prairie like a magic trick.

My sister, who is a year older and remembers these things more accurately, says we went to see the show, but I don’t recall it. The only images in my head are the elephants erecting the tent.

For years afterward, I had a small, stuffed elephant, covered in soft gray leather. I put it on my valentine box for school, with a tiny, red construction-paper heart taped to the end of its extended trunk.

I was obsessed with the Babar books, the adventures of an anthropomorphized pachyderm who dressed in fancy English clothes, rode in hot-air balloons and married his cousin, Celeste.

When my father read me Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories, I begged him to reread my favorite, The Elephant’s Child/How the Elephant Got His Trunk, which if you don’t know, emerged because a pesky alligator in the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo River grabbed the Elephant’s Child’s boot-shaped nose, trying to eat him, and stretched it until the Bi-Colored Python Rock Snake with his scalesome, flailsome tail helped the Elephant’s Child escape. None of which is surprising because the Elephant’s Child was full of satiable curtiosity. The story has an excessive amount of spanking, which apparently didn’t faze me.

When I started using Pinterest, I created an elephant page, where I post pictures of baby elephants and their mothers, trunks intertwined, playing in the water. I watch videos on Facebook of mother elephants saving their babies from fast-running rivers.

So when my son, Nate, was born in July, the same time that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to Phoenix every year, it seemed to be fate. A visit to the circus would be his birthday tradition.

Each year we ate popcorn and cotton candy, bought whatever new gimcrack they were selling us suckers born every minute, and took Nate’s picture with a series of circus backgrounds, a matching set, just like those with Santa Claus. I sat through the acrobats and clowns, waiting for the elephants.

Over the years, more and more was revealed about the abusive training. My friend, Tami, a more highly evolved, ethical soul than me, refused to attend Nate’s birthday outings. I made excuses, swallowed the spin about Gunther Gebel-Williams’ more-humane techniques, and kept going.

I wanted to believe. I couldn’t comprehend cruelty to these empathetic, intelligent animals, a matriarchal society in which daughters often stay with their mothers until they die, all the females share in raising the babies and helping others in distress and, when mourning a death, carry a tusk or bones of the deceased as they travel.

It was an elephant, Jumbo, captured after his mother was killed, who helped revitalize the circus when P.T. Barnum purchased him from a London zoo in 1882. He drew the largest crowds the circus had ever seen. He died only three years later in a freak accident, struck by a train while moving across the tracks in Ontario.

At Baraboo, where the Ringling Bros. started their circus, we saw stunning hand-carved circus wagons, restored to their original splendor with gold leaf, buildings used to house and train animals over the winter, and an illusionist carrying on magic traditions.

Two elephants perform in the mini-big-top show, twirling with sparkling women on their backs and sitting on a stool. Their trainer said they only work a few minutes each day and that they like it. I no longer believe it, but I loved, once again, seeing the beautiful animals walking across the path only feet away. I would be happy just to watch them meander, no tricks necessary.

After reading Mother Jones 2011 investigation of the poor treatment, which included beatings and separating babies from their mothers, I am happy the elephants will retire. But I will miss them.

This year, Nate was 21, and for the first time, we were apart on his birthday. We didn’t go to the circus. No popcorn. No cotton candy. No gimcrack. No elephants.

I think we need a new tradition. Perhaps a safari, where we could see the mothers and babies together, in their rightful home.


  1. Reply
    Pam July 26, 2017

    Damn, Judy – good story!
    And of course you use the word
    ‘gimcrack’ (love it)

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols July 29, 2017

      Thanks, Pam. Great to see you.

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