For over 100 years, we have been honored to have these majestic, intelligent, beautiful animals among us. On this historic day, we'd like to share our memories and stories of the elephants with you.
(photo of Baby, courtesy Adria C.)
“Got the chance to ride one of the girls for animal walk. And I do mean chance. She didn't like Dustin's clown shoes and threw him off." – Brandon F., Clown
“Just [having] the chance to meet them...they are very majestic animals with very deep souls that you can see once you truly look in their eyes. They will be truly missed and will always be in my heart.” – Bernis T., Pie Car Chef
“I grew up in Allentown, Pa. When Ringling Bros. Circus came to Allentown, all of the wagons and animals went right past my house on their way to the Allentown Fair Grounds. One year, I told everyone in the neighborhood that I was going to leave town with the circus. When the night show ended, the elephants were walking back to the train. When they arrived in front of my house, one of the "bull hands" hollered, "hey Joe!". I thought he was calling me. I ran up to the third floor and hid under the bed. I was the talk of the neighborhood for weeks.” – Joe D., Circus Fan
“When the show used to winter in Venice (FL), we were playing a part of the show where the elephants backed up to the band stand (which at that time was between two portals). As I was accustomed to this I paid no attention; however, I noticed the trumpet players had stopped playing in the middle of the act (it was a 15 piece band 4,3,4). When I looked up the tail was up right above me. I moved in the nick of time, but never forgot those players didn't warn me.”
– Donald P., Musician(photo courtesy Bernadette M.)
“My favorite moment is when I first arrived at the unit. Jason G (Management) parked the truck. I get out of the cab, and the first thing I see is six Asian elephants, two of them staring in my direction. It was a very surreal moment. I knew my life would never be the same.” – Benjamin H., Sound Crew"Prince (elephant) had this thing for untying my shoes..." - Barb R., Ringling FCP Employee
(photo courtesy Adria C.)
“My fondest memory was taking my Aunt to RBBB (red unit), introducing her to my friend Gunther
and letting her feed an elepant. She had never been to a show before.” – Darlene L., Circus Fan"Gunther had this elephant, her name was Congo, she was huge. Only African elephant that's every been on this show, she came over with him from Germany, in the 50s. We were doing an animal walk in Savannah, and the local guy--he was a sheriff or deputy or something--he wanted us to wait because a friend of his was trying to get to the animal walk [to see it] after the show. We had to get going, so Gunther said, "No, we go now!", and the guy's like, "Hey buddy, just a second, you're not going anywhere until I give the word." Gunther insisted, "No, we're going now," and turned around and started to walk toward the animals, and this guy went after him, and reached out and put both of his arms around Gunther in full view of the elephants.
"Gunther yells, "CONGO!", and Congo spins around, sees this, and comes charging at the guy, ears out, tail up (note: these are signs of aggression), and she sounded like the G- D- Santa Fe Chief comin' down. And this guy just freaks out, going "Ok! OK! We can leave now!!" - Anonymous
(photo courtesy museeducirquealainfrere)
"Here's one of my favorite memories:"
– Francis C., Traveling Show Ministry
“First, not a specific memory, only [memories] of the many times I stood backstage and turned around to find elephants RIGHT BEHIND ME. They are 4-ton ninjas, totally silent when they need to be. Second memory is of a marshmallow fight between the trainers, some elephants, and the tiger trainer's son Gunther. The people mostly threw at each other, with the elephants stealing the evidence...” – Eryn C., Circus K-12 Teacher
“When the show played Providence, RI, the elephants were staged before their act right in front of 60 wagon doors. The first show I didn't realize this and went to leave the office, only to open the door and find elephant butts blocking the way!” – Adriel P., Circus K-12 Teacher
“When I was first hired to do cannon I hadn't been on an elephant since I was little. My first official day on the job I went and met Rye (the director of the show) and talked about what I would be doing. Miser (my cannon coach) had set it up so that I only would have to be in the opening act, my cannon act, and the closing act. Rye asked if there was anything he could do for me and I told him the only other things I could think of that I wanted would be if I got a cape and could ride the elephants. He looked so surprised but told me he would see what he could do. Miser thought I was crazy to ask for more work in the show.
"Fast forward to winter quarters...I figured Rye had forgotten about our conversations because I saw my costumes and no cape :( But Lo and behold, up went the list of people who had elephant riding practice...and I was one of them! I was SO excited, like really really excited. I went out to the barn early for the first lesson and all the crew was making fun of me 'cause I was like vibrating with excitement.
"I got to ride Assan, one of the older elephants on the show. She walked really slowly but I didn't care. I was riding and elephant! It was the highlight of every show for me. If I had a bad cannon shot I got to ride Assan, if I had a great cannon shot I got to ride Assan. No matter what I was allowed to ride and interact with the sweetest elephant ever. I was always early for the elephant cue too, I just could never wait to go see them all line up. It's one of the things I miss the most about being on the show. It's something I will never forget and cherish forever.” – Elliana H-K., Human Cannon
(photo courtesy Jessica H.)
"Lisa was a young elephant at Roberts Brothers Circus in 1989. Like all young ones, she loved playing in water. One of my favorite memories is watching her jump in mud puddles. She would literally--or at least as much as an elephant could--jump up and land with a splash in any puddle she could find. Lisa did this with such joy that it just made you smile.
"For some reason, Lisa was often tied near the generator truck. Like all young ones, she liked attention. And she found a sure way to get it: Lisa learned how to turn off the generator! Whenever she did so, people would come running. Lisa was a fast learner but it took her humans a longer time to learn to tie her up further away from the generator!
"Another elephant I knew was Flora the elephant from Circus Flora. When we were making the movie Big Top Pee Wee, she would be staked out in a field that was at the center of how the trailers were circled. Her favorite toy was a tire and she would play with it for hours. But if she got tired of playing by herself, she also knew how to get someone to come and see her. Flora perfected the skill of rolling the tire to bump into the trailer that held her groom. The bump against the trailer from the elephant-rolled tire would always get him to go out to see her.
"My favorite Flora-the-Elephant moment happened one day on the set for the Big Top Pee Wee movie. Flora and Mikey, the miniature horse, were tethered near each other in a field. They were close but not too close. Mikey was dozing in the sun. From my trailer window, I watched Flora stretch out as far as she could and reach out with her trunk...and pull Mikey’s tail! She then quickly moved back by her stake, turned her back to Mikey and literally looked like someone just standing there, looking up and whistling a nonchalant tune. Mikey looked all around but didn’t see anything that could have woken him up. He dozed off again and Flora did the same thing! She really had to stretch to reach his tail and move fast to get back near her stake with her back to him looking innocent. It was hysterical! The second time, Mikey looked right at Flora but she had her back to him and was not close. It almost looked like he turned away and then looked at her again before he went back to his nap. Flora pulled her stunt and his tail a third time! This time, Mikey looked right at her and moved to the end of his tether and out of her reach!
"My favorite elephant memory of all time was from when I worked on Reed Brothers Circus. We opened in Oregon, in a town by the ocean. I think it was Coos Bay. My partner and I arrived on the lot just in time to see Jo Dee Craigmile leading Bucky Steele’s elephants down to the ocean for a swim. It was a beautiful and breathtaking sight and one I cherish." - Jessica Hentoff, Artistic/Exectuive Director of Circus Harmony(photo courtesy Jessica H.) "I was first introduced to three lovely ladies on a mud show. At first, just watching them in the back yard. Then over the years, feeding them their favorite fruits and veggies, an occasional cupcake and of course, rolling them watermelons. It was amazing to get to know each one, what they liked best and how they liked to be fed. The last year, I bought the "personal size" melons and just popped them into their mouths! Watching them try and keep all the juice in was pretty cool. I was then privileged to get atop one of the biggest elephants I had ever seen...sitting behind her ears while she styled for the camera was amazing! This ride cost me a huge apple pie and a gallon of cherry vanilla ice-cream; obviously not for the elephant but for her human caretaker. Sadly, these ladies perform in another part of the country now, but what wonderful memories!" - Pat S., Clown"My favorite story is of Asia. Once she found out I kept Snickers bars, she sniff me every time she saw me. I started to have to buy her her own. One day I made the mistake of forgetting to buy hers. She actually looked at me turned around and gave me her butt." - Michelle J., Circus Employee "Being in the portal, 7 months pregnant, waiting to collect Andre (Ringmaster)'s coat after opening and finding myself unexpectedly nose to nose with Lennox (sound tech), who was starting to load out, and the elephants were inches behind him. We had a pretty good conversation for a few minutes cause no one could move. Hahaha." - Blue B., Wardrobe "We were doing PR for Good Morning America and I [crashed into] the last elephant I flipped over during my leaps act."
- Mujaheed S., Acrobat
(photo courtesy Adria C.)
"We had a PR in Baltimore for Runner's World Magazine with Kenneth Feld. The photographer of the shoot said, "Can we get that yellow haired one on the elephant?" Without missing a beat I walked over to Baby and waited for her to kneel. It was simply amazing to just be able to sit on an elephant, and call it a job at the same time. Throughout the shoot, the photographer kept asking for Baby to back up, or move forward, and Baby just wasn't having it after 3 or 4 adjustments, she was starting to feel on my leg with her trunk, and from what I was told, she was ready to yank me off and down to the concrete. Thankfully, through excellent observation and a true passion for their animals, the handlers got me down before I was a noodle, and wrapped the shoot at the same time." - Kyle B., Clown"So many memories! Whenever they lined up for spec I'd be outside smoking and Mark would enjoy giving Asia the command to sit on my lap. A bystander would swear this elephant was sitting on my lap, little did they know there were just hairs between the two of us but she would never sit on me, she hold it forever. Another memory is out in California the hay was kept on the outside of the tent. One of the elephants thought it a great idea to steal one, pass it down and kept on doing it until every elephant had their own bale hay...it was hysterical!" - Michelle J., Circus Employee(photo of Siam, courtesy Adria C.) "I did start out on several different elephants but Assan was the longest one I had a one-on-one relationship with. She was the lead elephant as the elephants entered the arena for the Manage (note: "Manage" is from "Menage" short for "Menagerie"). Assan ran the full circle of the arena...down the back track, around the end track and then the entire front track to reach her bull tub. Gunther ran the distance with her and I believed she loved every minute of their run together. After Gunther retired he was away for book signings from time to time. When he was gone his daughter Tina would then do the run with Assan. But while running with Tina, if Assan saw Gunther backstage she would slow down about half way down back track until Gunther would come running out to join her to finish the lap. She loved the attention. "When I first joined the show one of my favorite traditions was the annual Easter egg hunt in the arena. Everyone has Easter egg hunts outside in the grass but our kids got to do it in an arena, three ring lengths of egg hunting opportunities. Eggs were hidden in rigging, in ring curbs, and even in props. It was as if the elephants always knew when it was Easter or maybe they could just smell the sugar, but after the egg hunt for the rest of Easter Sunday the elephants, particularly Assan, would be caught sniffing around the props looking for and occasionally finding the easter candy the children had not found.
(photo courtesy Jade F.)
"When getting on the elephants, one must hold on tightly to the head piece with one's left hand. There was an occasion when a fellow dancer was getting on Banana (elephant) and must not have had a tight grip. Banana tossed her leg up to get the rider on and the next thing I heard was the dancers voice coming from the other side of the elephant saying "Umm, I think something went wrong since I am standing next to her instead of sitting on her!" She had been tossed clean over and had landed standing on the other side!
"Assan had a funny quirk. Once she reached her bull tub she would shake her head side to side rather rapidly before she would sit up on the bull tub. Some thought it was difficult to ride her because of this but I always found it endearing. I just held my thighs tightly around her neck and allowed my hips to follow her movement. A friend was watching one time and thought I was going to be thrown off because there I was sitting upright and then all of the sudden all she saw was my boot because Assan had turned her neck so far to the left. But when she straighted her head there I was just like I was supposed to be. I told my friend no big deal...I just always trusted Assan.
"When I went to the doctor to confirm that I was pregnant, I was told no horseback riding. I asked about elephant riding and she looked a little surprised but said that she thought it would be ok as long as I didn't fall off. I told her that I had never fallen off and I didn't plan on starting now. So I rode for the first three months of my pregnancy on Assan, with Barrett inside. I was never nervous or hesitant. Brett (my husband) could see the act daily and he swears that Assan took even more care stepping over the ring curb during that time because she knew I was pregnant.
(photo of Assan, courtesy Theresa B.)
"Assan and I shared quiet moments. She would take my hand in her trunk and lift it up to her mouth so that I could pet her tongue (which I would tell her that I'd only do this because I loved her!) She would wrap her trunk around my hips or sniff my shoes. When I would sit on her waiting for the act she would lift her trunk up to me so that I could stroke it. Many times I would lie on her head and talk to her. I never gave her treats when I was on her because we were told if we started that then we would have to do it every time because the girls would expect it, and we might forget but they never would. Even after I stopped performing when I would be outside near the elephants, she would hear my voice and start to walk over to me. She loved attention so much that she would lower her head toward Mark Oliver or her handler Ivan Espana wanting them to stroke her head. One time she did this while I was on her and at one point I put my hand on Ivan's shoulder (he only stood about 5'5") and said, "Ivan, do you see a problem here? I am on top of an elephant and able to touch your shoulder??" His response was, "No, I don't see a problem." He gave her some attention and she stood back up.
"Lastly, here is a picture of the time Assan tried to follow Mark Oliver Gebel into 16 wagon (Payroll Dept) and Mark decided to leave a note from Assan to the current purchasing agent about what apples she liked." - Theresa B., Dancer(photo courtesy Dan K.) "Walking into the building in Boston...we had to walk by the elephants to get to the dressing rooms. Well one elephant in line decided to reach out and purse-snatch...she grabbed my purse off my shoulder with her trunk and stepped all over it while I stood there speechless. Finally a handler came over and got it back for me but everything was smashed and broken already!" - Dawn T., Dancer
"The day I met Gunther Gebel-Williams was in Roanoke, VA around 1992. He had retired from the ring and handed his boots over to Mark Oliver Gebel to carry on the family business. Gunther still traveled with the Red Unit as Vice President of Animal Welfare. I attended the Saturday night performance with a friend, but I went back and hung around the edge of the back lot during Sunday's first show just to watch the comings and goings into the arena.
"There was a movable metal barricade and a security guard. I did not intrude onto the lot, but rather wound up speaking with the guard as I watched the performers come and go from the arena. When preparations were underway for the elephant act Mark brought them up and lined them all in a row along the curb that rimmed the sidewalk running across the back of the Civic Center. I can't remember exactly how many elephants there were, but at least ten, probably more. Mark was in front of the elephants and Gunther walked over to speak with him. During a lull in their conversation I politely shouted to Gunther and motioned to my program as a way of asking for an autograph. He motioned to the security guard to let me through and for me to come over to him. "So there I was, face to face with a herd of elephants in the presence of Gunther Gebel-Williams and Mark Oliver Gebel! Being that close to such a large herd was a bit unnerving. They both signed my program along with Tina Gebel and later that day, Lisa Dufresne. I treasure that program more than others because of the day's events. Unfortunately my camera was out of film (yes, film back then) so I have no photographic remembrance...just the wonderful memories that will travel into eternity with me." - Dan K., Circus Fan "It was in Miami, Fla. - I believe in 1990 - with the Red Unit. I was on Ring One Props, and Manage had started. We prop guys were also on hand to assist with rolling bull tubs and with sweeping up any !@#$% that the elephants "left behind" (ahem). Mary was the elephant up on her bull tub in the Back Track corner of Ring 1 and Gunther Gebel-Williams shouted the command to begin the dance. Keith Greene and the band went into the number, and the elephants began to dance and twirl on the bull tubs...but Mary was having just a little bit of difficulty: she had to go. And I mean, GO. Of course, her back was to the audience, and I was between them with a large plastic trash can and shovel at the ready. After a few drops, the audience was already shaking their heads and laughing with us (note "with" us). Then when Mary KEPT GOING, I started catching the drops before they hit the floor. The audience ROLLED with laughter, catching the attention of more of the audience along the End Track and Ring 1 area of the Front Track...which got THEM laughing loudly, also. That got Gunther's attention...and HE STARTED LAUGHING, TOO!! It wasn't over. Mary had one more big one to go. So naturally I just shoved the trash can under her backside and let it go. The audience was now in tears that they were laughing so hard. Gunther was just one of the type of great men who went with what was happening, and when Mary was obviously ready, she went on with the show. (The audience was laughing so hard it nearly drowned out the loudspeakers blaring out Keith's band music, LOL.)" - Rhett C., Circus Employee "We will still find your presence
in the spaces between
curtain and concourse
we will still see you standing
in those moments before
the perfunctory turns to
ladies of ponderous gracefulness
mothers of exuberant joy! - Francis Cancero"
(photo of Siam, courtesy Ryan H.)
"I'll be honest, I didn't think I could be in the circus. I needed a change in life, and suddenly the circus called and offered me one. I still didn't know. I went and met the band, nice people, saw the book, seemed like I could play it. I still didn't know. You hear rumors, the stories of "bad circuses". I love animals with all my heart, and couldn't bear to associate myself with a company that would even THINK of hurting an animal. Then I saw them, all standing in a row backstage, waiting to rehearse their new routine. I was told I could sit on the bandstand. And here they came, on the softest feet, shuffling SO close to me. And I realized at that moment, I would get to be THAT close to elephants every day. They looked happy, proud, ecstatic to be performing. Flapping their ears, swaying to the rhythm of the band. I knew. I knew the respect I held for them, so did everyone in this organization. My dearest elephant friends, change is inevitable, the world will continue to spin on it's crazy way, and that means you get to go eat your veggies in retirement now, and not with us. You will get to help study a cure for cancer, the thing that has taken so much from all of us. Thank you for letting me be in YOUR show for the last few years. Safest of travels to your new home." - Jameson B., Musician
(photo courtesy Jameson)
Congo. Sabu. Prince. Toby. Banana. Cita. Banko. Tonka. Luna. Sara. Ziam. Baby. Mary. Kenny. Bonnie. Asia. Angelica. Bo. Mable. April. Assan. Tommy. This is a partial list of the elephants I've had the pleasure of working with over the last 22+ years. They are unique in every way. Part of me wonders what they think of all of this, their "retirement." But, as for me personally, I am selfish. No longer will I get to see them during preshow. The looks on the faces of the audience as they watch Mable paint and play. No longer will I hear the tremendous roar of the crowd when the herd comes through the portal. Never again will I get to see their amazing act. Nor will I get to see the personal interaction between animal and trainer. It sucks. But the circus changes. It has to grow and move, and we have to go along with it. We will scoff, we will lament the changes, we will remember "the good old days," and, the show will go on. We will entertain the masses. We will do what we do as no others can. The show has changed from when each of us started, and there are many more changes ahead. The circus changes all of us. And the circus changes itself. And we love it so, so much." - Brett B., Bandmaster
"Karen, Nichole, Mysore, Suzan, Lutze, Minyak, Bonnie, Kelly Anne, Sara, Juliette, Angelica, Rudy, Asha, Gunther, Barack, Tova, Jewel, Tonka, Luna, Bonko, Baby, Mable, Assan, April, Asia, Siam, Sundara are the names of all the amazing elephants I have been able to work with and around in the last twelve years. Although I am not a trainer, I have had an incredible opportunity to still be able to learn about these majestic creatures and care for them.
"I started with a shovel behind them. In the last few years my responsibilities have moved from direct, daily hands on care to helping plan the daily and weekly operations with the trainers and handlers. These hardworking people have taken the best care for these animals and have treated them as family. The relationship you can build with an elephant is unique and complex. Very few will ever understand it but if you can, then you will understand why our hearts will be so heavy tomorrow. "The Girls" as we call them, will be moving on to the next chapter in their lives after the two remaining shows tomorrow. They will be missed by many of us. But their good health, good behavior and excellent displays of intelligence by each individual elephant is proof of the successful people that took them into their lives and cared for them as if they were their own children.
"To all of the trainers and handlers that I have had the pleasure of working with from 2004 to now...I'm so proud of you and I am very lucky to have been able to work and learn from you. Each and every one of you have made an incredible positive impact on this beautiful, endangered species." - Jonathan M., Animal Specialist
(photo courtesy Jonathan M.)
"My heart goes out to some amazing people today. More than 140 years of history ends as the elephants take their final bow today at Ringling. These handlers and caretakers have given up so much of their lives to make these divas safe, happy and healthy every day. I have only love for how this circus has cared for these beautiful creatures, being a true example of how animal care and welfare should be. I struggle to describe all of my emotions as this day begins, however cherishing how lucky I am to have worked so closely with them even for such a small moment. Best of luck, happiness and endless thanks to the crew that is moving on, and love and kisses to the beautiful divas on their journey to retirement." - Stacey T., Veterinarian
(photo courtesy Adria C.)
"I usually don't comment much on the subject, however I acknowledge this day [5/1/16] with a heavy heart. I am proud to have been a fourth generation elephant trainer/handler, I was blessed to live and work with these amazing animals for over 30 years, and I stepped away a couple of years ago to raise my 4 year old son. For me, this is the day that will mark the end of an amazing era. I was privileged to spend a good deal of my elephants' career working on Ringling Brothers Blue, Gold and Red [touring units] and I would like to thank the Feld family for all they’ve done, these memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. It has been a great honor for me to be a part of this very special club, whose members have dedicated so much of themselves to their charges, and I say Thank You to these “elephant people”. Thank you very much." - Brian F., Elephant Trainer/Handler
(photo courtesy Jade F.)
"A couple of years before I worked for Ringling, while my family was visiting my brothers at the show in Omaha, we happened to be walking through the animal open house area between shows. I forget how it came about, but as we were passing the elephants the idea came up for us to be able to meet them and whoever the trainer was called us over and let us meet one. He did a spiel full of random elephant facts while she explored around our shoes and hands with her trunk. It was such an amazing experience as someone on the outskirts of the circus world. A couple years later I came on the road and worked just across the animal compound from them every day. The precious memories of watching them lounge around, play with tires or bamboo, or frolic in water spewing from a high-powered hose. To be around them backstage and watch them perform from so close by...to see their diverse personalities and their relationships with each other and their caregivers... it's beautiful. Interactions that are part of the every day here, like walking out of the bathroom only to find a line of elephant butts blocking the path, or crossing in front of the Divas and getting caressed by trunks are such sweet moments that will be missed so dearly. The circus will never be the same." - Judah W., Stagehand
Thank you to everyone who took time to write in for this project, and for those who didn't write in but nevertheless contributed via their sentiments and photos.
I hope that these firsthand stories, thoughts, and feelings have touched you and given you a glimpse into the lives of these amazing animals and the people who are priveleged to have earned their trust and love. Though they will be out of the public eye, please...please do not forget them. We on the circus will never forget.
See you down the road.