OK. I have been avoiding any real confrontation with circus elephants. I, after all, am not a tough activist. I generally melt in the face of adversity. And I collapse in the face of animal misuse. But the Cole Bros. Circus came to town, and they had elephants.
Like a sleepwalker, I drove into the parking lot where the big top was begin set up and asked if they did, indeed, have elephants in their entourage. "Please, god, please," I prayed. "Don't let there be any elephants. Let me leave happy."
"Sure we do, honey," said the lady at the ticket booth.
"I'd love to take pictures of them," I said.
"Go around back and ask for Louie."
My feet were lead. What would I do if there were scars, blood, or fractures? But I headed back to Louie land and suddenly saw three huge black elephants standing in a pen, being fed hay by a hefty guy. They didn't have chains or bracelets on. Breathe. I tapped Louie on the shoulder.
"I know this sounds nuts, " I announced. "But I'm making a documentary about elephants in RI and would love to take some pictures. And..." (I gave my most winning smile.) "I've never even touched an elephant. Would it be possible to pet one of them?" Breathe.
"Sure," he said. Just give me a minute to get this hay under cover."
For the next half hour we talked about elephants- his elephants, circus elephants. It turns out that he's from an elephant handling family and they keep their charges on a 400 acre ranch (The Endangered Ark http://www.endangeredarkfoundation.com/index.html) for the six months a year they're not on the road. They aren't chained there. They roam, swim, and graze and socialize the whole time. As a matter of fact, when they're on the road, he said, the only time they're in a truck is when they are actually moving. Louie takes them swimming and grazing as often as he can. They had spent part of that very AM, as a matter of fact, browsing the hedges on the perimeter of the property where they were.
Could this be true? Could this be a humane circus animal trainer, or had he just learned the right words to assuage my fears? He did get some elephant facts wrong, but... "I wish they could stay on the ranch all year," he confided. "But it's expensive and they do have to earn a living." Breathe.
We made an appointment for Louie to talk on camera and I showed up promptly at 10AM on Sunday. Louie was at the chiropractor's. I talked with his assistant, who had joined the circus a month before. "I'm so happy," he said. "I love these animals the best of any in the circus. I want to do this for the rest of my life."
Louie joined us. We shot about 1/2 hour of him telling about his and the elephants' life. He even has a facebook page called Vanishing Giants. We talked about the fact that more and more places are banning animal circuses and what that means to him and his elephants.
While we were setting up two women arrived. One of them has terminal cancer and had come to help Louie feed and clean his charges. She had told him the night before that it was her one dream- to help care for an elephant before it was too late for her.
I may be a sap, and I may be hoping for too much. But I am also hoping that, in fact, this experience was for real. I have no reason to think it was a setup. Or maybe that where elephants are concerned, it is possible that good things do happen.