EVERETT — Carol is magnificent.
An Asian elephant, she is massive, some 7,100 pounds and nearly 10 feet tall.
She trumpets when her handler praises her. It’s a noise that sounds a bit like a bird, high pitched, eerie, from another world.
At 38, Carol’s age shows in pink and gr
ay freckles on her wide and dimpled forehead.
Along with Patty and Duchess, the giant creatures from Thailand are the pachyderm stars of “Boom a Ring,” the latest Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to play at Comcast Arena. The show opens Thursday and runs through the weekend.
uring the circus, Carol will defy her hulk and dance with the agility of a ballerina. The elephant will salute the audience with her long trunk, twirl in place, sit down and perform a headstand.
“The audience loves that,” said Catherine Carden, Carol’s handler and a seventh-generation circus performer.
She tours with her husband, Brett, also a multi-generational circus performer, and their children, George and Cash. The Cardens spend about 40 weeks a year traveling with the circus, shepherding a menagerie that includes two camels, three horses, two ponies, a mini pony and 10 dogs.
Still, no animal draws as much response — good and bad — as the family’s three elephants.
For years now, many animal rights activists have focused their efforts to free captive elephants from zoos and circuses.
Animal rights protesters have become as familiar as cotton candy when it comes to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s circus. They would prefer that there be no elephants in circuses or zoos, and they say that children should learn about the creatures on the Discovery Channel and through movies and photos.
The protesters, including several Snohomish County groups, are calling for people to boycott Ringling Bros.
Circus and zoo officials don’t agree with protesters about much, but they all do share a passion for elephants.
“The thing we have in common is that we care about the animals,” said Bruce Upchurch, a curator at the Woodland Park Zoo. “It’s almost like religion.”
Activists say elephants are highly intelligent wild animals that deserve to live beyond the confinement of pens. Traveling with a circus is torture, the activists say.
Circus officials claim they treat their animals with only the best care. Ringling Bros. also donates thousands of dollars toward elephant conservation.
By bringing generations of children up close to elephants in the circus ring, Barnum says they are inspiring youngsters to care and provide for the magnificent mammals into the future.
Plus, it wouldn’t be the “Greatest Show on Earth” without an elephant.
“The clown and the elephants are the pegs to hang the circus on,” the 19th century circus magnate P.T. Barnum once said.
“He recognized the audiences wanted to see elephants,” said Janice Aria, the director of animal stewardship for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Center for Elephant Conservation.
The multi-million dollar center in Florida is where the species is bred, animals are trained and they are closely studied. It’s also a retirement home for aging elephants.
Like the Cardens, Aria, 61, grew up in a circus family.
She left the circus life to attend New York University, but quit in 1972 to join Ringling Bros. Although she started in clown school, she soon found herself working with elephants.
Today, she takes pride in her four decades of experience. She explains that although Ringling’s record isn’t perfect, and there have been isolated problems with animal handling, today’s circuses operate under strict local and federal guidelines.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture make unannounced visits to ensure compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. In 2001, Ringling settled a case with the USDA after an elephant died. The circus paid fines and agreed to enhance the company’s training programs. While there have been citations, there have been no violations since.
There also is the high level of scrutiny brought by animal activist groups.
“It puts the onus on us to make sure that our handling is totally professional,” Aria said.
Ringling keeps 45 elephants; 23 have been born in captivity. Fewer than a third of the elephants travel the country entertaining audiences. Some elephants don’t have the disposition to perform; instead, they live at the conservation center, adding to training programs and research.
Carol, Duchess and Patty are owned by the Cardens. Still, as part of a Ringling Bros. show, the animals must be cared for under the circus’ strict guidelines.
Performing elephants lead busy lives. They travel across the country in train cars or trucks, moving from town to town, delighting audiences and infuriating activists.
Two of the Ringling’s three circuses ride the rails. The show coming to Everett travels in a caravan of trucks and RVs. That means there’s no need to move the elephants from a rail-yard to the event center, and no elephant parade through the city.
The animals’ size alone can be dangerous, and their disposition can change suddenly. Workers have lost their lives in elephant accidents.
The tragedies and triumphs of elephants in this country are intertwined with the history of American circuses.
Both date back to the 18th century, when exotic animals were first brought to the nascent United States. At first, elephants were curiosities. Over time they became central parts of the act.
The first circus in America, a motley collection of clowns, juggling acts and wire walkers was held in 1793.
Most people hadn’t seen exotic animals before, and elephants and other beasts brought in the crowds.
The introduction didn’t always go well. The second elephant to arrive in America so horrified a group of New Englanders that they took arms against it.
“They shot it,” Aria said.
Over the decades, circuses and zoos have evolved from small traveling acts to sophisticated, huge entertainment conglomerates.
Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, operates several touring shows including three Ringling circuses, Disney on Ice and Feld Motorsports.
The company claims that 30 million people worldwide see a Feld-produced show each year.
Like the early days of circuses, elephants still are highly anticipated parts of the show.
Modern times and sensibilities have meant significant changes in how the animals are acquired. Since 1976, it’s been illegal to import elephants into the United States.
That means most elephants in zoos and circuses today either are older than 35 or were born in captivity.
Carol, Duchess and Patty were born to breeders in Thailand who sold the females, and kept the males to use as work animals in the logging industry. The three were among the last elephants to be imported before the ban.
Catherine Carden grew up with Carol and Patty, relating to the elephants the same way some girls bond with horses.
She remembers being 11, hiding from her parents in the barn, crying on Carol’s shoulder over some teen angst.
While Carden was a girl learning gymnastics, the young elephants were learning their routines.
Carol, Duchess and Patty have been putting on their six-minute circus act for more than three decades.
The moves are so imprinted on the animals they hardly need human direction.
“We barely even get near the animals,” Carden said. “Everything is like automatic.”
Activists claim the training regimens are cruel. They point to photos shared by former Ringling Bros. employees that show young elephants tethered and tied.
Aria, the Ringling spokeswoman, says the animals aren’t hurt.
Activists don’t buy it.
The proof, they say, is an adult behavior called stereotypy, a fancy word for repetitive movement.
In elephants, stereotypy is usually seen in pacing and head rocking.
“It’s the mind’s way of coping with stress and trauma,” said Alyne Fortgang, a Seattle activist.
Fortgang is co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. The group is working to have the three elephants at Seattle’s zoo released to a conservation center. Featured on the groups’s website is a video of pacing elephants.
Upchurch, one of the zoo’s curators, has a different perspective on the elephants’ behavior. Scientists have several theories about stereotypy in large animals, but the exact cause is hard to pin down, he said.
For some animals, repetitive behavior may be linked to hunting or be resource dependent.
The elephants at Woodland Park Zoo sometimes, but not always, show signs of stereotypy, Upchurch said.
Typically, the behavior is linked to something the animal is anticipating, such as being fed or interactions with a handler.
Carol, Duchess and Patty, the three elephants on their way to Everett, all rocked their heads in excitement as their daily routine transitioned from bathing to lunchtime.
They were hungry, Carden said.
“I know them inside and out,” she said. “I know what they’re telling me.”
During the show, Carden uses a combination of body language, voice commands and her guide, or bullhook, to instruct the elephants.
“They don’t speak English,” she said.
Fortgang and other activists claim the elephants are so frightened of the bullhook through years of conditioning that the animals will do anything to avoid what activists claim must be whippings and beatings.
“(Activists) try to take everything and make it negative,” Carden said.
She says her elephants are spoiled, fed top quality food, bathed regularly and well exercised.
“They’re happy because they’re being given food; it makes them look happy,” said Deb Robinson, a captive animal specialist with In Defense of Animals, a national activist group. “That’s not the life that these animals are biologically meant to have.”
Bellevue insurance agent Carol Guilbault plans to be in Everett this week protesting outside Comcast Arena.
“Elephants do not want to be here,” she’ll tell anyone who listens. “An elephant doesn’t want you to come here.”
These lines are as practiced and perfected as the circus act. Guilbault said she’s learned to engage kids, not parents.
“Ask your parents to tell you the truth about the circus,” she’ll say to the children.
The truth, it seems, is fleeting. No one knows what an elephant thinks or feels. No one can be certain how a wild, undomesticated creature will behave.
Carol, the elephant who will stand on her head for amazed fans in Everett this week, in 1990 was startled by a passing car. She stumbled, fell and fatally crushed a handler.
Waiting for a lunch of timothy hay last week, Carol seemed as gentle as a kitten, probing and exploring with her long trunk. Moments after a bath, she was tossing wood chips and hay on her back.
“We can only relate to our own emotions,” Catherine Carden said. “It’s easy to project how we feel.”
The trainer pats her elephant on the side.
“They have everything they need.”
How to talk to kids about protesters
Parents should be prepared for their children to encounter protesters outside Comcast Arena.
Depending on the child’s age, he or she may be curious about what the protesters are doing, said Melissa Hoffman, a social worker in private practice in Everett.
Children may feel some discomfort going into the show if protesters are loudly expressing opinions, Hoffman said.
Use the opportunity to ask children about their experience and how they’re feeling, Hoffman suggests. Observe children’s emotions aloud, without judgment. Offer children a developmentally appropriate explanation of what the issues are and explain what opinion you have.
“It’s an opportunity to talk about values,” Hoffman said. “For older children, it’s an opportunity for them to express their opinions and to maybe think of creative solutions to the problem.”
Learn more about elephants
There are lots of different views about elephants. Read several websites to learn differing opinions. Here are a few resources:
Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation: www.ringling.com
Woodland Park Zoo: www.zoo.org
Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants: www.freewpzelephants.com
In Defense of Animals: www.idausa.org
See the show
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Boom a Ring”: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 5 p.m. Sept. 11., Comcast Arena, 2000 Hewitt Ave., Everett.
Tickets cost $15 and $20; $40 for VIP and $65 for VIP Gold. Kids tickets are $10, except for VIP. Opening night is half off, except for VIP.