Dale Peterson / Elephants / Pachyderms / Susan Nance / Uncategorized

Riding the Pachyderm: Reconsidering a Childhood Memory

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Photographs in slide show taken by Irene Stalaboin, Circus World, Florida, 1976.

When I was very small, maybe three or four, my memé and pepé took me on my first trip to Florida. While there we hit the trifecta: Walt Disney World, Sea World and Circus World. I like to think I can recall this childhood vacation by faithful memory alone, but as I look through a pile of Kodachrome, I admit to myself that what I remember is merely based on the images in front of me.


Circus World opened in 1974. I remember going to Circus World only because photographs of pepé and I riding an elephant inform me of the event. Other than that, I have no visceral attachment to that particular place, which, according to several Internet sites, was located in Haines City, Florida approximately twelve miles from Disney. I want to remember the distinct nature of riding an elephant: the feel of its skin under my palms, or the ambling nature of its movement beneath my legs as we straddled its back. I wonder if the mammal felt the weight of us both. Was the elephant bored? Although I have an emotional attachment to this experience provided only through photographic images, do I necessarily have the right to feel anything?


I wonder: How many times each day  was the pachyderm made to traipse around and around what appears to be a narrow paved oval track, forced to give rides to strangers such as me and my pepé? What did they call the elephant? Not Topsy, I hope. Did he or she also perform in the evening shows? How many hours a day were the elephants required to work?


I am an innocent bystander, or so I think. I stand in front of the elephants held captive in the stalls behind me. The solar glare bleaches the mouse ears sitting atop my head. I squint, unable to smile. The weather must have been cool that day; my red sweater never comes off. I wear royal blue pants and sneakers. Now I see it. I am circus colors.


Throughout my lifetime I have seen elephants in captivity, often worrying  about the unnatural spaces they inhabit. Asking myself, do they eat anything else besides hay?  The Feld family founded Circus World and later sold the park to Mattel. I was never a fan of the circus. I never liked clowns, and I have a distinct memory of attending  Ringling Brother’s  and Barnum & Bailey’s traveling show, waiting with anticipation to see the elephants while my eyes captured the glimpse of a bull-hook, raising my curiosity and concern. In one of the pictures above, my pepé looks back at my memé capturing these moments. For the first time, I notice the attendant walking beside the elephant carries a long stick-like instrument.


In The Moral Lives of AnimalsDale Peterson writes briefly on the history of wild elephants and their use in warfare, referring to trained elephants as “four-legged battle tanks” (99-100). However, these trained elephants, like many other mammals, possess fear: “If someone or something made them really afraid during battle, their obedience would collapse in a fearful panic, whereupon they would turn back and often cause enormous damage among their own troops” (100). Was the elephant ride truly worth it? Is it acceptable to transform a pachyderm into a war machine? Is it okay to train elephants to do the work of man?


Before Topsy was publicly murdered at Luna Park Zoo and forever immortalized in Thomas Edison’s short film, Electrocuting an Elephant (1903), her then current owner passed her onto a deleterious handler who tried selling elephant rides around Coney Island (Nance 185).


If I agree with Roland Barthes that “a photograph can be the object of three practices…to do, to undergo, to look…[then] the person or thing that is photographed is the target” (9), the elephants in these photographs are at-risk, the object of attack. Does that mean I am the attacker? If the photographic image is the epitome of death, have I somehow contributed to the death of this pachyderm?

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. NY: Hill and Wang, 1980. Google Books.

Nance, Susan. Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus. Baltimore: The John Hopkins U. P., 2013. Print.

Peterson, Dale. The Moral Lives of Animals. NY: Bloomsbury P., 2011. Print.

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