July 11th, 2008. Speculator, NY. 35 miles. Sand/grass. Light rain.
Yesterday was one of those odd days. We did an early show to a small crowd, and a later show to a much bigger one. The lot was alpine, at the base of a ski lift. The drive to North Creek provoked memories I hadn’t revisited in some time. Thirty years ago I was a radical. At 17 I went to Guatemala and spent some time there attending the American School. I had relatives from a well off family there. It was my first trip to Central America, the place where even now, many years later I still most at home in the world. At 17 however what I discovered was the difference between and poor. It was my first glimpse at grinding, hopeless poverty. Over the next several years in college I discovered what I believed was the solution to that inequity. Marxism. Not the totalitarian Soviet system, nor the brutal Maoist flavor, but a more democratic form that I somehow thought could exist in small nations where the rich had everything and the poor had nothing at all. My economical beliefs lead me to politics, and at the small college I attended I served on the Left in Student Government, trying to be practical, yet idealistic. Surprisingly my adversaries we’re more conservative that I was, but rather more die-hard Marxist-Lenininsts. The President of the study body was among that crowd. A kid from the Adirondacks named Tom who embraced the revolutionary notion that the ends justified the means in leading the masses toward some utopian end. We were friends and allies at times, enemies at others. After a year or so we both left that school. Another year went by and I was doing a snake show in Pennsylvania when I saw a story on the news of two college students in Buffalo murdered by a man recently paroled from the Attica prison. One ofv the student was Tom. His idealism, his trust apparently took him too far. Eventually there was another school in Florida, and then I was a zookeeper for awhile, and then I lived in Honduras for a bit studying sea turtles and redesigning the national zoo there. My politics became libertarian. It wasn’t Marx the masses needed, I concluding as an eyewitness to the atrocities of the Contra War, it was access to capital. On the drive to North Creek I saw a sign for Indian Lake. My friend Tom is buried there.
But yesterday there was another tragedy, another murder both more distant and closer to home. The road office manager for the Carson & Barnes Circus was murdered by his estranged wife while the show was playing in Davenport, Iowa. We like to say that circus is about families. Some of that is marketing. It sells tickets. But some of it is very real. A circus is a collect of families, entertaining other families in the towns where we pitch a tent. Yesterday on Carson and Barnes one family was permanently torn apart. A dozen other families are left to grieve and to wonder why? Behind the smiles in the center ring there are tears and sadness. With every homocide idealism is tried.
Email yesterday suggested that on Culpepper the elephant manager was knocked down by one of the African elephants. There was some fear that his shoulder was broken. Turned out that he was just banged up. Elephants are charismatic megafauna. As much as we might like to see them as cute, they aren’t. There are problematic elephants that require handlers who stop to wonder how the elephant is thinking. Elephants are social, and social animals live within rigidly defined orders. Problematic elephants constantly test that order. Old school elephant men may have believed that force and strength enforced social order, but today the best elephant trainers lean toward finesse. Can a problematic elephant safely work in a circus? Yes, but only with the right elephant manager. They aren’t push button animals. If we believe in traditional circus with animals we can’t afford to fall into the trap of thinking that the way it was is the way it is now. Circus is a business, we are necessarily pragmatic. But for the business to continue we all must realize that our audience is not pragmatic. They’re idealists…there’s that word again… They want elephants, but they don’t want an elephant that’s chained in a truck for days, or hit by an elephant guy who can’t think of a better way to solve a problem. They don’t want to ride pony that’s been punched by a groom. They want all circuses to hire the best people for the job, not the cheapest, or the fellow who was simply available. Complicated though it may be, to continue to create our own special “circus magic” we must live up to their standards. There’s no longer an excuse to keep an elephant guy who can’t really work elephants safely, nor should there be any place on any show for a groom who think that a whip is a legitimate tool necessary for grooming a pony. In 2008 you don’t keep a bad animal caretaker around just because you can get him to grain the hoofstock in winterquarters. We may be conservative by nature, but circus itself is subversive, fueling the imagination. Circus really is art, even if we are not always artists. Part of being pragmatic is looking realistically at how we can carry traditional circus with animals into the future without alienating the people we depend upon to fill the bigtop.