Last week, because we had free passes, the boys and I ventured forth to the otherwise exorbitantly expensive Piccadilly Circus, which had set up its big top at the Topsfield Fair Grounds. This is not a polished, Cirque du Soleil type of operation. This is a traveling in popup campers and decrepit RVs, employees of questionable backgrounds, gritty weird carnies type of operation. When they’re done at Topsfield, they’ll literally pull up stakes and move the entire circus family on to parts unknown. There are kids traveling with the circus, doing odd jobs and hawking souvenirs and, I am certain, getting a first rate education out there on the road.
But all these social matters aside, I must write instead about the elephants. This circus travels with a herd of goats, zebras, ponies, camels and elephants that variously head butt for Dixie cups of corn (goats), run around the ring and turn circles in unison (camels and zebras) and trudge wearily around with sociopathic children on their backs (ponies and elephants). But the elephant rides don’t bother me much. The vehicle, an Indian elephant, simply walked in a slow circle and then ate a handful of biscuits and some grass while the children dismounted. But once in the big top, in the very last act of the show, two of these animals plodded into the ring to perform with their trainer.
There is something sad about an elephant, under any circumstances. The care worn face, the heavy lidded eyes, the down reaching trunk. It would be hard to read happiness in an elephant, even if it were there. There’s no exuberant head toss as in the zebras, or defiant arc of the neck as in the camels. Of the two elephants performing, one eagerly lifted her trunk and left foot when requested, and sat on a wide metal stool. The second one, though, seemed dejected. Her trunk remained limply downturned, and she declined to raise her foot no matter what her increasingly distressed trainer did. But was the elephant really sad? Maybe she was just bored, or testing her relatively green trainer, or maybe she was playing. Still, I couldn’t shake the unease I felt, and the conviction that elephants were not made to sit on stools while bottle blondes clad all in nylon sit on their trunks or stand on their foreheads.
I thought about this all the way home, and for several days after. Were the circus people ascribing too little human emotion to the elephants, or was I ascribing too much? It’s hard to know with what to compare it. After all, we train our dogs to do tricks for treats, and it’s considered healthy mental engagement for them. But elephants are not domesticated. Even if raised in captivity, they are merely tame. You can go into a jungle and find a wild elephant just like the ones in the circus. You cannot go into the jungle and find a wild beagle. But parrots are like this too; you can go into the jungle and find a wild Quaker parakeet just like the one currently residing in my living room. And my parrots benefit from training and mental exertion and problem solving too. Without it, they are inclined toward feather picking and self mutilation, in fact. So it’s probably good that these elephants have something to do. In the end, I don’t think it’s the nature of the stunts they do that troubles me, it’s their simple presence there in the circus ring with silly hats on their massive heads. Because beyond the apparent sadness in an elephant’s expression, there just seems to be too much dignity for a circus.