Reporter, Elephant Rev It Up

September 04, 1991|By Angela Gambill

I'd been warned.

Friends had told me elephant hair was roughly equivalent to small iron spikes, eager to pierce my tender flesh.

They told me you swing around a lot on an elephant and suggested seasickness remedies and maybe a doggie bag.

But I knew better. I've seen those movies, those graceful shots of gorgeous movie stars swinging onto the backs of great grey beasts and thundering off into exotic greenery.

So when the Clyde-Beatty-Cole Bros. circus folks asked the paper to send a reporter and an editor suggested I would enjoy a little safari-in-Harundale jaunt, I didn't mind.

I like animals. I have camel-riding experience. I'm not all that afraid of heights. It seemed a nice promo for yesterday's circus opening (which continues today at Harundale Mall at 4:30 and 8 p.m.). How bad could one little race possibly be?

The afternoon started brazenly enough. I didn't quite swagger, but I tried to adopt a casual, "Hey, me and Indiana Jones got along just fine over in Africa" attitude.

I came early to check out the mounts, and they didn't look all that threatening:huge things matted with straw, chains around one fat ankle and sweetflappy ears. Harmless Dumbos.

Appearances are truly most deceiving.

Before you can appreciate the elephant's finer inner qualities,you have to get on one. As I didn't quite reach my elephant's knees,this posed a special challenge.

The elephant helps out by squatting down, and you put a foot on his face (yes, you feel rude). Then the trainer mutters something and hoists you like a sack of meal towardthe broad neck.

You scrunch up your knees right under the poor thing's ears and grab the red harness that rims its head like a woman'shairband.

Then you pray.

At least, I did. Prayed and made nervous "nice elephant. Good boy, Pete" sounds that probably amused my pachyderm (fancy circus talk for elephant).

The elephant stood up and lurched into place. I lurched with him, saddleless, blanketless, sweating and soon to be seasick. Whoever invented the roller-coaster was definitely an elephant jockey.

But I quickly forgot to worry that the cold falafel pizza I'd eaten for breakfast might resurface. I just wanted to live.

This sounds exaggerated. It isn't.

Imagine that you're far off the ground on a large barrel that doesn't stay still. And nothing you do will affect your rolling barrel. If Pete wanted to give me the yo-heave-ho, I realized, over the side I would go.

As a rule, people don't die in circus elephant races, I reminded myself. It would look silly on tombstones.

But that didn't keep me from searching my jeans for stray peanuts that might serve as bribery.

I inhaled the pungent Scent of Elephant -- one of the sterling aspects of elephant racing nobody had thought to mention. (You know the zoo on a hot day?) I tried to find traces of L'air du Temps perfumeon my wrist.

A blank pistol shot alerted Pete it was time to go, and he went.

Visions of haute mahouts were forgotten. I dug in my heels and screamed: "Pete, Pete, Pete, Pete.


Whereupon Pete, that noble beast, obliged by charging ahead full clomp.

The earth rumbled. The race ended. The elephants reared up on their hind legs and I nearly fell off. The crowd laughed.

Sweet Pete crumbled as near earth as he could get, and I dismounted by jumping about 10 feet onto the hardtop (as both legs were trembling, it was more like a collapse).

As winner of the first heat, I went home with a charming memento of the greatest elephant equestrian event since Hannibal crossed the Alps: a small stuffed grey version of Pete.

Unlike Pete, however, the stuffed toy mews charmingly when squeezed.

Underneath a leather hide, you'll find a tender kitten.

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