In the past 25 years, Sgt. Tim Davison has been a beat cop, a shift supervisor, and a child sex abuse investigator with the Minneapolis Police Department. Before that he made his living in the circus: as a singing ringmaster, a truck driver, a purchasing agent, an elephant groom, and an elephant trainer's assistant. Last week, as he does once or twice each year when a circus comes to town, Davison put on both hats. He donned his police uniform and became the all-around troubleshooter for the performers in the George Carden Circus International, which ran nine shows for the Minneapolis Shriners at the Target Center. "I take care of the showpersons' needs once they get here," he explains. "I know where to get hay. I know where to get meat. I've got the phone number of a farrier if anyone needs to get their horse shod. The guy with the monkey act needs fruit and vegetables. The dog act needs a certain kind of high-grade dog food. I know where things are--I'm a policeman."
Davison's first and last love is for elephants, and he's been waiting all year to see Nicky, Jenny, and Judy, the three cows in George Carden's act, who finally arrive around 10 a.m. the day before the first show. They make a sound like mewing kittens, one of a thousand noises elephants use, Davison explains, to communicate. They rock incessantly, always in motion, shifting their weight from foot to foot, rubbing trunks together. "They're right moody today," observes a skinny stagehand who's been milling around waiting for the trucks to come. After some 800 miles on the road, the elephants are thirsty and restless.
One of the handlers swings open the trailer door and tosses in a bucket. He pokes a hose into it and starts to water. The elephants lumber in close to the drinking trough, wrestling with their trunks, half tentacle, half nose, jockeying for control of the hose, peering out into the loading dock with deep, Pleistocene eyes. When one or another of them hogs the water supply, the handler gives the misbehaver a smack on the trunk with a short club. "Nicky! Knock it off! Stop!" Bob Potter, the Shriners' ringmaster, flips open his cell phone. "Tim?" he barks. "We've got some elephants down here who need some hay." By the time Davison arrives, the elephant troubles have multiplied. The crew discovers that the eyebolts to which the elephants are to be tethered got left behind at the last show up in Sudbury, Ontario. Davison bustles out to find a hardware store that carries them, looking harried but happy.
Davison credits his fascination with the big top to his great-uncle, a hard-core circus buff who passed the bug to Davison's father and on down the generational line. "Only two things I've ever wanted to do in my life: be a policeman and be an elephant trainer," he declares. In grade school he sealed his enduring fascination with the giant creatures. "We'd go visit circuses and I'd hang out in the elephant department," he goes on. "Get to know people. Get to know animals. Watch and learn. When the Shrine Circus was here in the old Minneapolis Auditorium, I was down in the basement most of the time where the elephants were." By the time he graduated from college, he'd turned his avocation into paying work, spending three years working for an elephant trainer in Illinois and then hitting the road with a small-tent circus on the West Coast.
It was there that Davison first met Maud. "She's just a nice, loyal, old elephant," he says fondly. On the road Maud was one of the elephants Davison cared for. Occasionally he was even conferred the honor of presenting her and her companions for an audience. Now she's 65 years old and in semi-retirement in Illinois. Davison tries to visit her once a year. "I like to think that she recognizes me," he says. "The last time I visited her it was in the wintertime, so she was indoors along with several other older elephants that they have down there. When I came in the room, all four of them came over because they have a great sense of curiosity--'Who's this?' And I called Maud's name. 'Course, she knows her name. She comes over and sort of looks at me. I had a little treat for her and then it was like she decided, 'I think I know who this guy is.' So she opens her mouth kind of like this, and I know then she wants me to rub her tongue. She likes to have her tongue rubbed. So I reached in and rubbed her tongue. And she liked that."
Not all elephants are so friendly. Davison has seen his share of the nasty ones. "I've been smacked a couple of times," he says. "An elephant's trunk has no bone in it. It's 40,000 separate muscles wrapped around each other. They can pick up a dime off the floor. Or they can tip over a semi-trailer with it. So there's a lot of power. I've seen guys who had the whole side of their faces bruised up--even get broken and cracked ribs." A vicious elephant is a good $250,000 down the drain. The only place for such an animal to go is one of a handful of breeding grounds around the nation where they fill out a herd without posing any danger to humans. (Elephants are notoriously fussy breeders, Davison says. They won't mate with humans around. They tend to get in the mood more readily with an entire herd of their own kind milling about.)