As soon I heard that sometime in 2018, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey were bowing to pressure from animal activists and ending 145 years of the performing elephant show in their circus, I knew it was a story I wanted to cover. Ringling were the last holdouts using the performing circus elephant so once they ceased, the act would disappear from the U.S. circus forever. My immediate thought was not only covering the last days of the elephants, but also the last days of the elephant staff working with them. Documenting their routines and relationships with their pachyderm partners as they prepared for and performed in their last shows together. I was also realistic. Due to the sensitivity of the story, I felt that the trainers might fear opening their lives to my camera and leaving themselves open to the judgement of the world, so getting access was a long shot.
I immediately went online and saw that there was going to be a show by Ringling in nearby Newark, New Jersey in the coming days. I made it a priority to be there. My thought was that if I just went and approached them and they saw what I was about, it would be a good start. I took a train to the arena on the day and before the performance, I found their P.R. person and explained what I wanted. He seemed a little wary when I presented my full pitch (as expected) but gave me his email address and suggested I write him and he'd see what he could do. I reached out the next day and thus began a year of correspondence with the P.R. team.
Then early this year, it was announced that the end date was to be rushed forward. Suddenly the last shows were to be performed in May 2016. I had two months to make this happen. My emails became phone calls and then another face to face meeting before a show, more emails to head office and conference calls between myself, my manager and their PR team. Ringling definitely realized I was serious about making it work and went ahead and gave the green light.
So in the last days of April, I found myself heading out to Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania (pop 41,000). The shows were to be held at the Mohegan Sun arena (think minor league ice hockey size). I was given three days and total access to shoot the trainers and the elephants before during and after the shows leading up to the May 1st finale'.
Once there I met my wonderful contact from the P.R. team, Melinda. We hit it off quickly and she introduced me to the elephant team. I shot lightly and tried to make them feel at ease with my presence. I had three days to shoot what would be repeated routine. On day one, I mainly tried to observe and plan my angles instead of shooting non stop and freaking everyone out. I mainly connected with a trainer called Ryan. He seemed most in to the idea of me being there, and as the trainer that appeared in the arena shows, was more than used to the public eye.
I had feared that their may be sudden areas off limits once I arrived, yet I was granted all the access I wanted. I shot as the team groomed the elephants, fed the elephants, dressed the elephants for show and moved them from their pens to the arena. I had access to front of house and backstage before, during and after the show. It was pretty much a dream job. But it was all leading to the end.
On the final day, hearts were heavy. The trainers went through the preparations for the final time. As the elephants headed to the arena, attendees stood by and waved, some clutching what were to be discontinued Ringling elephant merchandise. The elephants stood by the arena's large rear entrance as a small crowd of enthusiasts, performers and Ringling staff gathered to document the final moments. Trainers embraced, dancers and clowns cried. The Ringmaster stood by, watching on as stoic as you'd hope.
Then it was showtime. One last dance for a sold out arena. The act flew by as I tried to document all the angles I'd planned and raced backstage to catch the exit. I arrived just as the trainers walked them out and took them to their pens for a replenishing drink before loading them on to the trucks that took them to retirement. And then it was done. 145 years over. Elephants would perform in American circuses no more.