Andrea Spofford


What I Know:

What I know about elephants: Jumbo the elephant was one of P.T. Barnum’s most famous exhibits. He was killed by a train. Elephants were not present in America until the late 18th Century and menageries didn’t start travelling with circuses until the 19th Century. Circuses have animals, carnivals have rides; circuses stay only a day or two, carnivals linger. There are two kinds of elephants: African and Indian; both their habitats and their bodies are threatened by humans.

Circuses: I

Much of what I know about elephants comes from zoos, the internet, and videos. When I was in early elementary school a circus came to Lincoln, California every summer. I don’t recall the anticipation—attendance always seemed a whim—but I remember the cotton candy, sticky and handspun, the smell of dusty eucalyptus at McBean park, and the rickety board bleachers of the circus tent. The circus was family owned, tiny compared to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus that would perform at the ARCO arena in Sacramento—a larger, more robust circus of souvenir cups and machined snow cones, three large rings and simultaneous performances.

One of the last small traveling circuses, the circus at McBean Park set up a yellow and red tent between tall eucalyptus trees. Their travel trailers were parked in the lot behind the service building. The circus was one ring but it had every marking of a big top: an elephant, a camel, a girl who could hula hoop twenty hoops at once, clowns, pony rides, a ringmaster. I remember riding the elephant when I was very small, how it was so different from horses, the way its ribs moved beneath my legs. It smelled leathery and warm and walked around a makeshift arena for an hour before the circus started. After, it had a moment in the ring, between the horse and the aerialists, stood on back legs, boxed heavily with its front ones. The elephant trainer held its ears gently, showed the audience the difference between African and Indian elephants, talked about how old the elephant was. Every year, the same elephant, the same trainer.

A few years ago I visited the World Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. A National Historic Landmark Site, the World Circus Museum stands on the original grounds of the Ringling Brother’s winter quarters. In 1919 Ringling Brothers merged with Barnum & Bailey, creating the largest travelling circus in the United States—they would eventually buy out Sells-Floto, Hagenbeck-Wallace, the John Robinson Circus, the Sparks Circus, and the Al G. Barnes Circus, creating the largest travelling circus conglomeration in the world. Before this, though, the Ringling Brother’s Circus stayed in Baraboo, nearby Wisconsin Dells. The Dells are glacially formed river gorges—deep trenches with high cliffs—and today, multiple water parks. The Dells attract tourists; the World Circus Museum, perhaps because of its proximity to the Dells, seems to limp along every season despite waning funding and interest. The museum struggles to draw a crowd, though it has the largest collection of circus wagons—beautiful, intricately-carved wooden boxcars and horse-drawn carriages—in the world.

I spent most of my time in Baraboo at the circus library with the archivist, Erin. She was the last employee of the library, she said. Budget cuts. While I was there a man came in to donate fifty Kewpie doll prizes—he’d been storing them since the early 1950s. Erin gave him, and me by default, a tour of the climate controlled storage rooms below the library, shelves and shelves, drawers upon drawers, of original circus costumes dating back to the turn of the century. She let each of us try on giants’ rings—prizes given out to freak show attendees—showed us tiny shoes worn by “The Smallest Couple in the World!”—let us page, gleefully and gloved, through stacks of hand-painted posters and banners. There was an entire section of the warehouse dedicated to elephant equipment—cruel looking elephant hooks, heavily beaded harnesses, plumed headpieces. What isn’t on display in the museum itself goes there, in the storage room. Displays are rotated periodically. Erin does her best, she explained, to keep everything pristine. The problems are space and time and manpower. The antique banners are too big to hang inside and they can’t be exposed to the elements outdoors. They sit folded on shelves, creases chipping and damaging the paint. In the corner a taxidermied two-headed calf is in need of repair. That, Erin explained, won’t go on display; it’s distasteful and it’d be expensive to fix.

During my stay in Baraboo I took a day from the archives to visit the museum itself—the part on display. The grounds are large—fifty acres—and many of the buildings along the river are either partially or entirely original Ringling structures. Each massive warehouse stores circus wagons. Behind the main buildings are workshops where even more wagons are meticulously restored. An onsite circus performs at the hippodrome—the big top tent—rain or shine. The circus includes a family of jugglers, a few clowns, aerialists, and an elephant. Outside, the elephant roams in a large pasture, and before the circus there are elephant rides.

What I Know:

African elephants are bigger, have different trunk fingers, and differently shaped ears than smaller Indian elephants. There are more African elephants in the world, but their numbers have decreased by a greater percentage than Indian elephants. Elephants are just as intelligent as chimpanzees or dolphins—possibly more so. They are sensitive and their life spans can be affected by stress. In the wild elephants can live sixty to seventy years—though this number changes depending on the climate and human intervention; in captivity that number can be much lower, even as low as half. They are, for the most part, social herd animals. They are my mother’s favorite animal. They are wild, but manageable, though their intelligence can trigger bouts of rage. Elephants hold grudges. Their feet, inexplicably, remind me of human hands. They have toenails. They can be artistic and playful. Their gestation period is very long.

I think of a small, textured, figurine my mother kept on her dresser. I think of the elephant at McBean Park, the feel of its skin, its rocking gait.

Natural History: II

In the 16th and 17th Centuries the precursor to natural history museums, the wonder cabinet, or kunstkammer, emerged. A collection of exotic and interesting artifacts, the cabinet—a large room—contained objects, trinkets, taxidermied and preserved animals, minerals, shells, and foreign books. What was not readily accessible to Europe, at this time, could be found in a wonder cabinet. Collectors were wealthy and knowledgeable; meticulous in their preparation of displays, the object of collection was not necessarily breadth, but rather marvels. In 1708 Peter the Great of Russia sought advice from the philosopher Leibniz about collecting. Liebniz replied:

“Such a cabinet should contain all significant things and rarities created by nature and man. Particularly needed are stones, metals, minerals, wild plants, and their artificial copies…animals both stuffed and preserved…foreign works to be acquired should include diverse books, instruments, curiosities and rarities…In short, all that could enlighten and please the eye.” 1

Peter the Great’s kunstkammer, at his death, contained everything from extracted teeth to a “packet of his own hair,” a two-headed sheep, large quantities of ivory, and a whole mounted elephant.2

Elephants in wonder cabinets are not rare; in fact, they seem to be a staple of collection—their massive bodies and large tusks utterly foreign across Europe, but not throughout history. Used commonly in Asia today—primarily for logging—and in historical warfare across the world—examples include Alexander the Great and Hannibal—elephants and humans are linked.

The original idea behind wonder cabinets can be tied to the current incantation of natural history museums, which I like. Perhaps this is simplistic to say, but the idea of collection, the idea of so much information located in one building fascinates me. I can spend hours in the diorama halls and vividly remember both the bird room at the Field Museum in Chicago and the hall of mammals at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, describes the link between wonder cabinets and natural history museums as follows:

Ever since the late Renaissance these sorts of collections got referred to as Kunst-und-Wunderkammern. Technically, the term describes a collection of a type that’s pretty much disappeared today…where natural wonders were displayed alongside works of art and various man-made feats of ingenuity. It is only much later, in the 19th Century, that you see the breakup into separate art, natural history, and science museums.3

What I know about wonder cabinets I’ve been collecting for years. Besides containing the marvelous, wonder cabinets acted as a sort of competition between the super-wealthy and intellectual—who had the best stuff. They also served to educate and inform. The unusual and strange—or inaccessible—was put on display, perhaps not for the general public, but certainly for the elite social classes. Conservation had not yet been considered, but wonder cabinets were laying the groundwork—they introduced the unseen to an uninformed population; they put the foreign on display.

In the 17th Century Frederik Ruysch, a teacher at the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild, prepared artistic embalmments—typically stillborn babies. To understand these displays “we must grasp two features of seventeenth-century life … first, we have banished death from public view…in Ruysch’s time death was a persistent and omnipresent guest…Second, how can a post-modern and minimalist age understand the extensive and obsessive ornaments, the emotional exaggerations, of baroque style?”4 What do we do to feel emotional exaggerations? We watch reality television, youtube videos of elephants, the aftermath of natural disasters—information is instantly available, if we know where to look.

Elephants in circuses and wonder cabinets were shocking and different. During the heyday of big circuses herds of elephants were common. As a result, elephants became expected, necessary, for a circus’ success. In the 1950s circuses stopped traveling by trains, and first sideshows, then animals, began to fall out favor with the general public. Increased pressure from animal rights groups played a part as well. Where once a large-scale railroad circus would have a twenty-plus elephant herd, they now had two to three single elephants, few as many as ten.

Conditions of circus animals were exposed to the public and animal-free circuses started gaining popularity. In the early 1980s Cirque du Soleil, a mix of circus and theatrical performance was founded. Numerous other small, family run and owned circuses are animal free, including the New Pickle Circus and the Hiccup Circus. Today, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey faces constant investigation and reprimand for its treatment of animals, specifically its Indian Elephant herd. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses maintain that their stance on animals has always been the same: to inform the public and to encourage conservation.5 As a result, Ringling started the Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995. Like wonder cabinets, the unusual on display is part of their goal, but unlike wonder cabinets, at least on paper, that goal is hand in hand with conservation.

What I Know:

I like elephants. Sometimes I like elephants more than people, but this is true of my feelings about most animals. I won’t watch videos of elephant abuse—there probably aren’t a lot of people who do, but when websites post links (as in “look how atrocious this is”), I can’t make myself look. I know it exists, we all do, just like we know human torture exists. But sometimes we choose not to watch, and I think that’s okay.

I’ve seen elephants in three circuses my entire life, the first being the small circus in Lincoln, California, the second being Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey in Sacramento, California, and the third being the World Circus Museum Hippodrome show in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I have seen each circus more than once, with the exception of the World Circus Museum show. I think the elephant at the World Circus Museum must be lonely, but I’m not sure. The elephant in Lincoln must have been lonely too.

Archaeology: III

Conservation is “the action or process of conserving; preservation of life, health, perfection; preservation from destructive influences, natural decay, or waste.”6 Archaeology is like elephant conservation; sometimes we cover up what we’re trying to preserve. Across the country there are thousands of archaeological sites that remain unearthed. The team chooses to document their find, map any structures, and re-cover what they’ve dug up. Llano del Rio along Pear Blossom Highway in Southern California is one example. Designated a State Historical Landmark, the site remains partially underground. In fact, while anthropological societies have expressed some interest, little exploration has been conducted. Not a lot of people know about the site, and visitors are infrequent. The bronze plaque designating the site as a landmark periodically disappears, only to reappear months later. The most striking features are twin chimneys—they mark the spot where a hotel once stood. Sometimes people climb to the top of them, pose for pictures against the stark sky. These same patterns of discovery and hiding can be seen in portions of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona as well—critical locations of the Seven Cities of Gold.7

The reasons for leaving archeological sites covered are complicated. Sites are often opened to the public to inform and educate—a hands-on experience of living history. But the public often vandalizes or destroys sites, even unintentionally, including acts as simple as taking rocks from a foundation. How do we create awareness or educate the public without showing them what we’ve discovered?

Zoos: IV

Conservation is the advertised mission of zoos as well. A team of zoologists (primarily employed by major zoos in the United States) claims:

“Time is short. Conservation is about life, and each day that we dally, more is lost. The degree to which collection-based institutions can fully retool existing facilities, use innovative models when building new facilities, and change their prime function from visitor recreation to the fundamental community service of conservation will have a profound effect on the fate of Earth’s marvelous wild creatures.”8

I don’t know if we can educate the public without showing them these “marvelous wild creatures.” Some people may become invested in the concerns of the world because they see firsthand what is happening—if you volunteer with homeless youth in Los Angeles, you understand their concerns more clearly than if you read about them. If you work at an animal shelter, you see firsthand how many dogs and cats are surrendered. And if you see an elephant at a zoo, you see the closest live version of an elephant in the wild you probably ever will. Does this mean zoos are a good thing? What it means to me is that children who may never get the chance to see the animals—and certainly won’t if conservation is not encouraged—have the opportunity to catch unpredictable animal behavior. They can see an elephant without narration, with a summary—they just watch the elephant.

This is how elephants tie to archaeological dig sites: If we leave everything covered, or hidden, or securely tucked away out of human contact for its own preservation, we risk alienating people who want to help. Just like there are different learning styles, there are different points of contact, and it is through contact and service that some people start to care.

Ultimately, collections, including circuses, natural history museums, and zoos expose the public to animals they would otherwise never see. Youtube videos of elephants painting and playing in plastic pools affect us. Most of the world’s population lives in urban centers and is never exposed to endangered species, exotic animals. “Because urban life is so disconnected from nature, collection-based institutions have the potential to stimulate curiosity about wildlife, offer educational opportunities about nature, and improve the chances of winning support for its preservation”9—basically, if you’ve never seen an elephant, is it likely you will care about it? Will you know why you should?

Elephants: V

Almost a year ago Boy, an Indian elephant kept at the Kiev Zoo, died mysteriously. Boy was forty years old, but collapsed unexpectedly. Recently the Kiev Zoo has been under investigation for animal cruelty, abuse, and neglect. Hundreds of animals have died in the past few years, many from preventable or treatable causes. “I want there to be a beautiful zoo here with all the beautiful animals because the kids are growing and the zoo helps them develop,” a Kiev Zoo patron explains.10 But the Kiev Zoo has been misappropriating funds and, again, animals continue to die. Tamara Tarnavska, a member of SOS Animal Rights Group, says, “The zoo is in such a condition that it’s no longer a zoo, it’s a concentration camp. When I look those animals in the eyes, I am ashamed to be a human being.”11

What I Know:

Indian elephants are classified as an endangered species, and African elephants are considered at-risk. I think it is simplistic to say that elephants should not be kept in captivity, just as it is reductive to say all elephants in captivity are abused by their caregivers.

Sometimes I think about the circus, a line of elephants waiting outside, the way they pet each other with their trunks, their long-lashed bovine eyes. I wonder if we even need zoos today, if circuses should all be animal-free—devoted to human feats instead of animal performances. Elephants and circuses are nostalgic; they bring to mind a romanticized past that never existed. But they also bring the unfamiliar to life, the foreign to the general public. If you had never seen and touched an elephant, could you feel the texture of its skin? Could you love it?

Much the same way I have trouble imagining “two stories tall” without a point of reference, I know I would have trouble imagining the soft thickness of elephant hide, the movement of their trunk fingers, only some of the reasons I want to protect them.

Elephants: VI

I’m not certain circuses and zoos and even natural history museums contribute to protecting wild things, but I’m not certain they don’t. We can’t protect elephants with national parks—their territories are too large—and we struggle to cohabitate with them—wild elephants often destroy human dwellings and crops in Asia and Africa. When I want to feel the baroque emotional exaggerations of Ruysch’s time, I watch videos of elephants playing in pools, painting, and waiting for days with their dead. And maybe I only want to see the good of all of this—which is why I don’t watch videos of outrageous abuse, or wild elephants destroying villages, or even old circus videos posted on the conservation websites. But I don’t watch videos of human torture, either.

When I think about elephants I think about how awareness encourages conservation, how, ideally, people want to save what they can’t see, but ultimately they end up saving what they can. How many endangered species went extinct in the past decade? How many people took note? Sometimes I worry that if all elephants were wild, all elephants would eventually become extinct, that even though our resources are flawed, they are the only resources we have. Time is not abundant, “time is short. Conservation is about life” and to show is to inform.

If I hadn’t met an elephant at McBean Park in Lincoln, California, I wouldn’t have a memory of the feathery difference between African elephant and Indian elephant ears. I wouldn’t be able to smell the horsy, wild scent of elephant skin and pine straw. But I like to think I’d still want to save elephants. Like many, I struggle with the image of animals being held in captivity—dolphins in tanks, elephants in zoo habitats or travelling with circuses, penguins in their faux-ice playgrounds—but I also keep my dog in captivity. And I recognize the difference between animals bred for generations as human companions and animals removed from the wild to live in captivity; but, again, humans have a long history of this. Human and elephant interactions are not new.

Sometimes I think conservation has to be selfish, that we are incapable of blind preservation and protection, that the only hope we have is for decency. Maybe, like Ruysch’s fetal displays, all of this will eventually seem distasteful, society will become more closely involved with what the human body can do—Cirque du Soleil performances, for example—and care less about captive animals. But then what happens?

We might forget the animals. Conservation isn’t always pretty and it isn’t always perfect, but it creates the opportunity for human/animal interaction. Conservation is “the preservation of life, health” and there are only so many ways we can do this. To remove elephants from the wild is both to display and protect them. Like the public acting upon archaeological dig sites, the public also acts upon animals—we wear them down, we use them, we objectify them and turn them into strange and wonderful objects for our own enjoyment. But we also protect them—wild elephant habitats are quickly being destroyed, elephants are hunted and killed in retribution for destroying crops, poachers still roam—and so far we can’t seem to find a solution that protects both the elephant and human inhabitants; to do so would be to value one life over the other.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey have been fined for animal abuse numerous times—but their circuses and centers have not been shut down, nor have the fines been excessive. The complication seems to lie in definitions of “appropriate behavior”—and the words of former employees against the words of the center. Their Center for Elephant Conservation is both an esteemed conservation center and an elephant farm, providing the most successful Indian elephant breeding program in the United States, and the most performers for the Ringling Brothers circus. Since its conception, the center has facilitated the birth of 23 Indian elephant calves—according to their website, “many Asian elephant experts estimate that only two to four calves are born in the United States each year.”12 In terms of reproducing a species in decline, the Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation is doing pretty well.

It may seem like I only care about elephants because I’ve seen them, and that isn’t the case—seeing them only contributes to my affection. I have memories of elephants, emotional attachments to elephants. I like what I hear about elephants—how they travel in matriarchal groups, how they are kind to their young, how they remember—but I also like how these animals are real; they are something I can touch and see without digital intervention because of the opportunities zoos and circuses provide. I like dogs and cats and people sometimes, too, and for me part of the attraction is interaction.

I don’t think animal abuse should be tolerated, but I do think definitions of abuse should be reconsidered. An animal in captivity that is treated well, provided proper medical attention, nutrition, and intellectual stimulation is no more abused than a domestic dog or cat, and, honestly, is treated better than many people around the world.

The argument can be made that technology allows exposure to animals without captivity—we can watch a herd of elephants in the wild via Planet Earth. And maybe the answer really is that simple: Be considerate, let them roam, protect and share what is all of ours. But maybe there’s something more complicated about sensory exposure, and maybe, however unfortunately, we cannot escape our need for observation, for display.

What I Know:

On the day I visited The World Circus Museum, Baraboo was overcast and the museum grounds were nearly deserted. During the day the elephant roamed a pasture with shade trees and a water trough. The trainer sat atop the staircase alongside the fence and every time the elephant walked by, the trainer stroked its back and ears. The elephant ran its trunk along his hands.

End Notes

1 Purcell, Rosamond Wolff., and Gould, Stephen Jay. Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992: 17. Print.

2 Ibid, 18.

3 Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Vintage, 1996: 61. Print.

4 Ibid, 30.

5Amazing Animals.” Welcome to Ringling Bros. Circus! Web. 2 Apr. 2011.

6conservation, n.”. OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. 11 May 2011.

7 In 2007 I took a trip through the Southwestern U.S. At one of the campsites I visited an archaeological team was conducting a survey of land they found promising; their hope was to discover one of the Seven Cities of Gold, a myth that has been present since Spanish exploration. If they were right, they said, they probably wouldn’t dig the whole site. They explained that for them preservation meant keeping the site from the public.

8 Miller, Brian, William Conway, Richard P. Reading, Chris Wemmer, David Wildt, Devra Kleiman, Steven Monfort, Alan Rabinowitz, Beth Armstrong, and Michael Hutchins. “Evaluating the Conservation Mission of Zoos, Aquariums, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Museums.” Conservation Biology 18.1 (2004): 1-8. Print.

9 Ibid.

10 Danilov, Maria. “Shocking Number of Animals Dying at Kiev Zoo.” Washington Examiner. 23 Mar. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2011.

11 Ibid.

12The Nursery. The Elephant Center. 27 March 2012. Web.



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