He's the leader of the pachyderms

March 22, 1995|By Suzanna Stephens | Suzanna Stephens,Contributing Writer

Why do elephants sit on marshmallows? Why do elephants paint their toenails red? Why do elephant keepers have the highest on-the-job death rate of any occupation?

Graham Thomas Chipperfield, elephant and lion trainer for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, knows about the mortality rate, but not the marshmallows or toenails. Perhaps he doesn't know elephant jokes because he has bigger things on his mind -- 19 elephants, including babies Romeo and Juliette and grown-up King Tusk, billed as "The Largest Land Mammal Traveling The Face Of The Earth Today."

Mr. Chipperfield, who prefers Disney's "The Lion King" to "Dumbo," joined the Greatest Show On Earth from his hometown in Oxford, England, around the same time 2-year-olds Romeo and Juliette were born. Since then, he and the elephants have become almost inseparable.

"They're very, very cute," he said. "Romeo is a very mischievous elephant. He's like a little boy should be. Juliette -- she's a little more timid, a little bit shy."

When they go out into the ring together, the 26-year-old Mr. Chipperfield said, he beams like a proud father. "The audience -- they all go 'aaaaaahhh!' -- especially the little kids.

"They're very, very cute animals. Miniature elephants -- little tiny trunks, tiny tails. . . . They don't have to do anything. All they have to do is just walk around," he said.

Mr. Chipperfield finds himself full of paternal pride for his baby pachyderms. He can't resist talking about them. "Juliette -- she likes to get me dirty. She'll get dirt on her trunk, she sniffs on the ground, sniffing around, and when we're standing there waiting, Juliette -- she will sniff my face or something. She'll make big dirty patches all over me," he said, laughing. "She knows she's teasing me."

Elephant souvenirs

All that cuteness has almost inspired a fourth ring for souvenirs. "There are Romeo and Juliette everything. There are T-shirts, there are lights, the cups -- everything," Mr. Chipperfield said.

Romeo and Juliette's favorite treat is marshmallows, not peanuts, according to their trainer. "They won't do anything unless you give them a marshmallow." They eat "bags and bags" of them. "They're spoiled already," he said.

Mr. Chipperfield trains all the animals with positive reinforcement, never scolding or hurting them. "I maintain spending a lot of time with the animals, learning their likes and dislikes and the capabilities of the animals. Spending time and patience is important. And it really does work. It's just like training a household dog, but with a little bit more difficulty."

And it does get difficult. "One of the hardest things I've done -- I taught one of my elephants to jump on the end of a teeterboard and shoot me up into the air, and I do flips and things like that.

"First, I had to teach her to jump on the end of the board, then I had to teach her to use the correct amount of force. If she hit it too hard, I would fly too high in the air. If she didn't hit it hard enough, I wouldn't go anywhere. And that took about two years," he said. "Every day we would do it. And when she hit it right, I would reward her and then she'd hit it right."

The teeterboard trick is now part of this year's elephant act. Mr. Chipperfield performs the Terrifying Teeterboard Takeoff with Meena, one of three elephant-friends who came with Mr. Chipperfield from Oxford. "I was brought up with her," he said of Meena. "She's actually older than I am."

For Mr. Chipperfield, performing in the circus is fulfilling a destiny. Chipperfields have been performing in circuses since 1684 in his native England. Graham's father, Richard Chipperfield, who owns Britain's oldest circus, established Chipperfield Farm in 1965 as a breeding and retirement farm for circus animals. Graham Chipperfield has always been in the circus and hopes he always will be.

While it's true that the mortality rate for his occupation is the highest of any, Mr. Chipperfield said that people, not animals, are to blame for fatalities.

"The zoos around America -- they don't hire trainers," he said. "They hire people who don't know very much about elephants. And they end up treating the elephants wrong. They don't know how to train the elephants, and then that's where they get into trouble. . . . I know maybe one or two trainers who have been killed by elephants, but I know hundreds of others who haven't because they've been trained properly. They know what they're doing. . . .

"I mean, I've been working now with elephants since I was born. I've always been around the elephants. My family's been working with animals for 310 years. I've fallen off the elephant before. I've hurt myself and broken my legs, but I've never actually had an elephant do me any harm, because I treat the elephants properly and I know what I'm doing."

Where animals go, he goes

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