Elephant Memories: A Childhood Lost, And Found - At The Circus

For over a century, the circus, and the horse drawn carriages, have shared a common bond. Ideological zealots who have made it their mission, to put them out of business, under the guise of supposed 'compassion' for the animals in their care.

The catastrophic failure of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the real estate moguls of the animal rights front NYCLASS, to ban the carriage horse industry, to get their hands on the property where the stables are, 'day one', backfired, garnering an FBI subpoena for its principles.

A resounding victory for animal welfare enterprises across the country, and merely a speed bump in a determined campaign to do away with everything from carriage horses to the Big Top.

'This campaign ostensibly is on behalf of animal welfare. But in reality, it has one target in mind: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. It's merely the latest episode in a long-running animal-rights war to shut down the Big Top, the dirty details of which are worth keeping in mind. They reflect horribly on the ASPCA, which is a key "parent" of NYCLASS, having given it $710,000.'
~Will Coggin, New York Post

In 1880, founder of the ASPCA Henry Bergh, tried to shut down PT Barnum's horse, Salamander and the Ring of Fire act. At the showdown, the flamboyant Phineas, had the police and Henry jump through the the flaming hoops, to wild cheers from the audience.

130 years later, the ASPCA had to pay $10 million RICO charges and the HSUS case was thrown out of court as, 'frivolous' and 'vexatious' and had to fork over $16 million to RBBC.

New York City has only one City Council. Ringling Bros has hundreds in every town they put down stakes, the relentless, vicious war of attrition, bullying and harassment waged by the RARA (Radical Animal Rights Activists).

The Feld Organization's statement says it in 5 words, 'You can't fight City Hall.'

But the real victims are our children, who have been robbed of their childhood and the unmitigated joy, of seeing an elephant for the first time.

'The noblest art, is that of making others happy' ~ PT Barnum

As the story goes, my father Jack would come home muttering, 'Say bird, say bird, say bird' for weeks on end. He was a film editor on Bambi at the time.

Both my parents worked at Walt Disney Studios during the Golden Years, on all the classics, my dad an editor and my mom an airbrush artist on Bambi, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo - in which tipsy, pink elephants sang and danced.

So you might say, at an early age, I was given the gift of magic and wonder, in the knowing, elephants could fly, animals talked, and crickets gave advice. For me, there was never any question about the unspoken language between animals and humans.

The first time I saw an elephant up close and personal, Harry Truman was president. My father took me to the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, plopped me in the hay, propped up against a leather legged pachyderm, and took this picture.

My father has been gone for many years, but that indelible memory, frozen in this photograph, buoyed me through some really tough times over the next 70 years.

'I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.'
~ Albert Einstein

In his short life, Jack traveled the world and listened to people with his camera. He gave me the gift of curiosity, to trust what I saw in the lens. To look for the common thread of humanity in all of us, that there are three versions of the truth.

And, if you leave it running long enough, people will always, tell you their version.

I knew nothing of horse carriages or animal rights activists, three years ago when I began filming my documentary, 'My Horse For A Kingdom'.

My friend Seamus McDonagh, was a 'horse and carriage driver' in the early 80s and I knew he loved his horse, those were some of his happiest memories when he immigrated from Ireland. The night he fought Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title, all the drivers tied up outside Mickey Mantle's, to watch the bout.

So I went up to the hackline and began filming and talking to the drivers and visiting the stables, telling the stories of the horses and the drivers and posting 200 videos on YouTube.

I filmed every press conference, screaming protester, every fashion show protest, every phony witness, fake dead horse schlepped through the streets of Manhattan, and I was stunned at how the animal rights folks' spectacular acumen, for... making stuff up.

Over two years, I posted hundreds of videos on YouTube. And not once in those years have I witnessed any abuse, only love, buckets of oats, and a thousand children feeding carrots to horses.

The animal rights lobbyists plan was, first the carriage horses in New York, then all carriage horses in St Louis, New Orleans, Charleston, London, Toronto and Paris. First the circus elephants, then the big cats, then the lions and tigers and bears...oh my.

And then, your Chihuahua, Maya.

So when I heard the elephants were being retired, 'stolen', from the circus, it was like a piece of my childhood had been wrenched from me.

I made it my business to run away to the circus, with my camera, and see for myself, the way I did with the horse carriages. It was the same cast of characters, whose tactics of bullying, attrition, manipulation of true believers' anthropomorphic projection of perceived misery onto the faces of the 'poor'...fill in the four legged blank.

'The circus a place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool' ~Ambrose Bierce

Johnathan Lee Iverson's smile precedes him into a room. As Ringmaster of the Greatest Show on Earth, he is a purveyor in the, Art of the Unbelievable, 'where people fly and talk to animals, and animals seem to talk back to them'.

With his top hat, and suit of lights, he is the interpreter of a language known only to children (of all ages), and one of the most powerful and important voices for working animal advocacy and welfare in the country.

Johnathan became my guide for two memorable visits with his circus family. The second, during the wrinkled grey lady's final bow, in Providence.

Both times, just being in the presence of such majestic creations, when they silently shuffled by me tail linked to trunk, like they were wearing bedroom slippers - I wept.

Bittersweet tears of awe, and that I couldn't share this journey with my father. For the breathtaking and humbling joy watching them gently sway, the hairs on their backs and trunks, rim lit by the afternoon light.

It was like a scene out of one of my father's Disney movies. One was getting a pedicure, yes, a pedicure. One was breaking up pieces of bamboo and lovingly feeding them to her friend, shoving it into her mouth with a trunk. I marveled as it disappeared. The crackling of the bamboo, the silent swaying as if in slow motion, the afternoon sun lighting up the red hairs on their backs and stingray ears undulating. It was overwhelming for this 'little girl'.

And that night, when Johnathan floated across the ring, as if by magic, and announced, 'Ladies and gentleman the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey elephants' for the last time, trilling every syllable out of that 'R', a chill could be felt in the packed stadium and and collective 'wow' when the curtains opened... for second to last time.

In the three years since Mayor de Blasio vowed to ban the horse carriages, to retire his campaign debt, he never visited the stables, or met with the drivers. The folks who put him in office, have never seen the horses, or elephants either, which he also attempted to ban.

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The whole animal rights movement has always been based on hearsay. Never any empirical evidence, no first-hand experience. So it's like the blind man and the elephant, they are fighting for the trunk or the tail, never seeing the whole picture.

They have now insinuated themselves into the back rooms and council chambers of City Hall, deep-pocketed, slick lobbyists are attempting to legislate away all animal enterprise endeavors. Death by a thousand lobbyists, and ten thousand regulations.

Using 'fear porn' as largess (if you've ever gotten a mailer with electrodes attached to a monkey's head...), eschewing fact for ideology, lauding celebrity over science, and raising billions in donations to 'free' the 'poor' horses, elephants, lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

Mountebanks of misinformation, PR spin, flipping the script, and, The Big Lie. 'If the lie is big enough, and repeated often enough, it is believed'.

But it's all smoke and mirrors and ideological extremism because all of the high profile animal enterprises are the most heavily regulated in the country.

'We put him in office' in this stunning admission of just how de Blasio was elected.

There are varying degrees of dogma, PETA Person of the Year, Russell Simmons equated the 'enslavement of animals' to the Holocaust.

If you understand the horse carriage fight, you will understand the circus, because it's the same cast of characters.

The horrific bullying, screaming foot soldiers terrify the legislators. They yell, 'You're an animal abuser' to total strangers, and the night of the show in Brooklyn, making small children cry, children visiting the circus for the first time, hollering, 'Bad parent' as their shocked mothers dragged them past.

A Carriage Driver, Ringmaster and Animal Activist

The falsehoods being perpetrated against the animal enterprise industry is unconscionable. This is about animal welfare, people who know everything about animals, defending themselves against those who know nothing.

A few months ago, we gathered at the stable for a candid and important dialogue with Johnathan, a ringmaster, Christina, a carriage driver and spokesperson for the industry, and Kristal, a reformed animal activist.

It was a robust exchange and we all came away wiser. If you love the circus, if you love the zoo, or the carriages. Remember, animals remind us of our humanity. Go up to the hackline and feed a carrot to a horse, and stop and listen to them.

They stole the elephants, the big cats are next and then all the animals. You can help. Write letters to your city council members. We did it in New York, you can do it too.

Please follow Sandi Bachom on Twitter.