Elephants Never Forget
By Susan Nance
The Johns Hopkins University Press, $55.00, 294 pages
As if serving as a press release for the 2013 publication of the book Entertaining Elephants by Susan Nance, a news item recently appeared in papers across the country. It concerned an almost unheard of event involving an Asian elephant named Carol. The 39 year old pachyderm belonging to the famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey suffered a bullet wound to her neck in an early morning drive-by shooting. Although Carol is expected to make a full recovery (the circus, naturally, carried on the following shows without her), this act of cruelty puts the spotlight back on menageries and the role circuses and other wild animal exhibitors will have in the years ahead. Sadly, elephants are now on the endangered species list making this cowardly act of violence a federal offense. PETA came forward to support the elephant by offering $5,000.00 toward a larger reward seeking the conspirators in this case. Nowadays, it is not unusual for animal rights activists, such as PETA, to become involved. As Nance points out in Entertaining Elephants, protesters and controversy are as much a part of a twenty-first century traveling circus as the ‘popcorn and the clowns.’ But this is not the true ending to Nance’s story. With this her story has, in reality, almost come full circle.
“In 1796, an elephant came to the United States.” From his first “scheme” to capitalize on these animals, admittedly so by purveyor of pachyderms Captain Jacob Crowninshield, Americans were introduced to something they knew little of, namely, the elephant. It is from this humble beginning that the often troubled relationship between man and his “performing elephants” begins. Entertaining Elephants relates the fascinating history behind every aspect and element of the “animal agency and the business of the American circus” and it is just as dynamic on the inside as the outside packaging leads one to believe. With no known path laid out before them, both the elephant and the men responsible for this (ultimately) massive animal’s training were out of their element. Is it any wonder that the padding of those manacled elephant feet across barren land could only lead to the ultimate train wreck that evolved as the traveling circus (involving wild animals) today? Nance exposes the treatment or rather mistreatment that performing elephants have endured to conform to the mantra “the show must go on.” It begs the question: was an elephant really born to learn to stand on its head? It is difficult to digest at times, these accounts of oft used training methods, relying on the “elephant hook” or the dreaded pronged pitchfork, produced to obtain obedience and at times, even death. These tales are shocking but not really surprising. Don’t even ask what happened to Topsy, Mandarin or Fritz. You don’t even want to know or read about that. There are endearing stories, too, such as the relationship of Hannibal and Queen Anne and their embraces and “elephantine kissing.” Now that is real love and if you are a true lover of elephants, such as this reviewer, then you must add this book to your collection and remember this. If anything can be learned or taken from this book it is that if ‘the show must go on’ then mankind, if he has any compassion for animals, must do so without our beloved elephants.
Reviewed by Kathleen Godwin