Elephants Among Us: Two Performing Elephants in the 20th Century

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July-August 2013:

Elephants Among Us: Two Performing Elephants in the 20th Century by Mike Jaynes Earth Books (15200 NBN Way,  Blue Ridge Summit,  PA 17214),  2013. 199 pages,  paperback.  $22.95.

Elephants Among Us is a lengthy, detailed and meticulously researched e-book about the life and death of two performing elephants. Born in captivity in 1973 and later purchased by animal trainers Mike and Sally LaTorres,  the elephant Stoney began performing in 1977.  He was trained by methods including food deprivation and use of the ankus,  a traditional Indian elephant training device also called,  in the west,  a “bull hook,”  since similar instruments were used to drive cattle to slaughter before the advent of electric prods. 

Similar to a fireplace poker,  with a hardwood handle,  the ankus is either applied to inflict pain or to remind the elephant of pain.  Ankuses are not used at either the Performing Animal Welfare Society elephant sanctuary or The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee,  nor at most zoos that have adopted the “protected contact” method of elephant handling,  but 30 years ago the ankus was,  for most elephant handlers,  both a universally used tool and something of a staff of office,  sometimes carried even when there were no elephants in sight.

According to Jaynes,  Stoney was considered part of the La Torres family,  and was a special favorite of Sally’s,  until 1986 when Mike and Sally LaTorres divorced.  The divorce settlement left Stoney with Mike.  Mike and Stoney performed at county fairs, circuses, and at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas as part of a “Winds of Gods” extravaganza. 

Beginning in 1992,  USDA inspection reports detailed violations of animal care standards.  Stoney was believed to be underweight;  his drinking water contained algae;  and he had skin lesions.  On September 23,  1994 Stoney screamed and dropped to his knees.  He had torn a tendon,  leaving him unable to perform.  For the next nine months Stoney lived in almost total isolation behind the Luxor Hotel.  Attempts to restore him to health ended with his death on August 28,  1995.  Under pressure from Las Vegas animal advocate Linda Faso and Performing Animal Welfare Society founder Pat Derby,  who learned of Stoney’s plight and whereabouts in April 1995,  the hotel agreed to pay the cost of transferring Stoney to an Arkansas sanctuary,  but he died before he could be moved.

Fewer reliable records are available concerning Mary,  whose story occupies the second part of Elephants Among Us.  Part of a small-town circus act,  Mary was believed to be about 30 years old when she arrived in Kingsport,  Tennessee,  in 1916.  The circus owners hired an apparently inexperienced drifter named Walter “Red” Eldridge to be their elephant trainer.  Eldridge liked the other elephants,  but for unknown reasons he feared Mary.   One day Eldridge led a procession of elephants to a watering hole so they could drink and romp around,  riding Mary.  On the way,  Mary spotted a discarded piece of fruit.  Mary broke away to eat the fruit,  angering Eldridge,  who whacked her with his ankus. 

“Mary wrapped her trunk around him,  plucked him off her back,  and slammed him into a wooden drink stand,”  says Jaynes. Mary crushed him to death.  Townspeople demanded that Mary be killed.  On September 13,  1916 a crowd estimated at between 2,500 and 5,000 watched as Mary was hung from a railroad crane.

Elephants Among Us is not easy reading for several reasons.  Endless details from official reports weigh down the story. However,  Elephants Among Us clearly illustrates that elephants belong in their native habitats,  not in circuses or other performing venues.

 ––Debra J. White

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