“But I be done seen ’bout everything
When I see an elephant fly.”
— From Disney’s Dumbo
Those lyrics, sung by the jive-talking, bee-bopping Jim Crow and his brothers in the 1941 Disney animated classic, come at a time in the film when a young, super-big-eared circus elephant is found asleep in a tree with his mouse friend Timothy.
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At the suggestion that Jumbo Jr. (nicknamed “Dumbo” by the adult female pachyderms because of his oversized ears and clumsiness) had flown to his perch in the tree, the crows begin to rib Timothy for such an absurd idea.
Laughingly, the crows say that they’ve “seen a horsefly,” “a dragonfly” and “a housefly,” but an elephant fly?
Once they hear Dumbo’s story about how he had been ridiculed and how his mother had been caged and chained for trying to protect her child from bullying circus-goers, Jim and his brothers become sympathetic and help Dumbo gain his confidence while perfecting his flying skills.
That movie, produced before I was born, came to mind when I heard that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was yielding to economic and legal pressures, if not a political assault, and was phasing out its trained elephant acts. The circus’ last 13 performing elephants will be retired by 2018, The Associated Press reported.
Looking back on the history of Ringling Bros., and recalling scenes from Dumbo, it’s easy to notice the irony in the farcical but heartwarming theatrical release.
While we never know Dumbo’s father, his mother’s name is Mrs. Jumbo. I suppose the Disney folks knew that Jumbo was the name of the first Asian elephant P.T. Barnum brought to the United States 145 years ago.
And although no circus today has trained an elephant to fly, it is amazing what they can get these largest-living land animals to do.
How many times have you seen them trotting down Main Street of a city like Fort Worth linked trunk to tail? Or standing on their hind feet, with their front feet on the back of the elephant in front of them, curling their trunks in unison? Or standing on their front feet with their hind legs in the air? Or using one foot to stand on a short pedestal while lifting the rest of their large bodies?
These are not things that elephants naturally do, which makes you wonder: How are they “trained” — or is it coerced — to do that?
There have been several documentaries about the treatment of elephants in captivity, particularly in zoos and circuses, including the recent HBO production, An Apology to Elephants.
Aside from their living conditions, compared to what they would have in the wild, the training techniques can only be described as cruel. And, yet, when you take a child to the circus, the “How do they get them to do that?” question rarely comes to mind.
I’ve been thinking about it for years now, since every time the circus comes to town there are animal rights demonstrators outside the arena holding protest signs, some with photos of how the animals are treated.
It is past time that Ringling Bros. made this decision, which the owners say was not based on complaints by organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Instead, they said local governmental restrictions and legal battles have become too costly to fight.
Whatever the reason, it is good that it’s finally happened. Imagine a circus without the animal that has become its identity. Like the crows in Dumbo, I thought I’d never see the day.
Now imagine a circus without lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775