Trunk Show

Under the big top with the elephants and their keepers

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.

Craig Lassig

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.)

When Davison finally returns to the Target Center with four steel eyebolts, the elephant crew busies itself setting up the elephant picket: The stagehands screw the bolts into corresponding holes in the floor. Two long chains are threaded through the eye-holes, and buckled back on themselves, making a pair of parallel lines. Smaller chains with leg shackles connect to them. The handlers lead the cows out of the truck and into position. Each patiently lifts first a front and then a back leg while the handlers fasten shackles around their ankles. Then they resume their perpetual shifting, running their trunks back and forth over the concrete floor.

Jenny, Judy, and Nicky are all in the thirtysomething age range. They are curious about strangers, especially Nicky, who stretches her trunk out like a probe once she's on the picket. "The more intelligent an animal is, the more complex their personality," Davison says, watching her. "And elephants are probably the most intelligent four-legged land animal." This particular trio seems patient and gentle with their handlers, though that is a matter of training. "When you're doing the initial training when they're babies," says Davison, "a lot of times the first thing you teach them to do is tail up--to take the tail of the elephant in front of them so they can walk from place to place in a line. You use food rewards: little pieces of fruit, banana slices. And then at the end of each training session maybe a whole banana.

"Once you get a wild or exotic animal into a certain routine, if you want to change the routine, you have to have some time to rework it," he continues. "If you want to train an elephant to walk on the barrel, that's going to take some time. You have to work that elephant into the idea that, number one, walking on the barrel is an okay thing to do: You put the blocks underneath the barrel to keep it from rolling, and coax them into standing on it. You just gradually move from one thing to the next, and before the elephant knows it, after a couple of weeks they're walking the barrel."

If he had his druthers, Davison would spend the week hanging around the elephant picket. But even before they are off the truck, his next crisis has arrived: The bear act blew a head gasket and is blocking rush hour traffic outside. He scurries off to rescue them. Before the circus packs up and moves on to the next show, Davison's pager will have gone off a hundred times, and he'll have solved twice that many problems. But he says he thrives on the stress, and his proximity to the spotlight. On the police force, he says, "I'm working in a unit that investigates cases nobody cares about and nobody wants to know about. It's not high-profile cases like homicides and robberies. It's this little dark corner of life. Anything that gets me out of there is a welcome change."

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