I recently read that elephants have given their final performance in the famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — and the tape in my head immediately rewound to 40 years ago, long before the term “baby boomer” had even been coined.
I was a young freelance feature writer for a regional chain of Gannett newspapers in New York state. Ringling Bros. had just opened its season in Madison Square Garden. And I was assigned to do a story on a day in the life of an elephant trainer.
Notepad and camera in hand, Laurie, my wife-to-be, and I spent a full day behind the scenes of the Greatest Show on Earth. And what a show it was!
Behind the circus curtain, we discovered a world of stables, dressing rooms, practice areas, and resting spots for performers and animals alike, a world where it was not unusual to hear the roar of a tiger, observe a family of acrobats rehearsing their routine, watch jugglers juggle, or catch sight of a clown relaxing with a hot cup of coffee, the entire scene swathed in a pungent odor of hay and manure.
Hard to believe all these folks performed in nearly 500 shows a season and called a mile-and-a-half-long circus train “home.”
“We have to dress, sleep, and eat just like everyone else,” said 34-year-old Axel Gautier, elephant trainer extraordinaire, and descendant of six generations of circus performers, as he introduced us to his wife Donna, and 12-year-old son Michael, both of whom performed in his elephant act. Six-year-old Son Kevin was still too young for the big tent.
Then on to his herd of mastodons. We got to observe, up close and personal, Axel and his 12 elephant handlers as they readied these huge pachyderms for their various performances throughout the day. The animals appeared to be handled with great care and respect, but man, are elephants big!
As easy and routine as they made their work out to be, make no mistake, this is a dangerous business. Axel told us, “Usually, when an elephant misses a trick out there in the arena, the blame can be put on us. It’s that margin of error that needs to be watched.”
The tragic irony is that in 1993, while working with one of his elephants, Axel was knocked down, stepped on, and killed.
We only knew him for that one day, but when we read about Axel’s passing from circus history at the age of 51, my wife and I were both saddened.
Now his beloved mastodons are passing from circus history as well. On one level my wife and I are very pleased that, as a society, we continue to raise our consciousness about animals and how we treat them. It’s the right thing to do. No regrets there.
On another level, as a boomer kid who always thought it would be fun to run off with the circus, for me it represents yet another passage, another point of change, another vanishing act.
Gone are cabooses, hula-hoops, telephone booths — and now, Dumbo!
As I get older, there’s a certain melancholy that surrounds these kinds of turning points. The only remedy? Bring in the clowns.