A Complicated Interspecies Love Story Takes Center Stage in 'One Lucky Elephant'

A Complicated Interspecies Love Story Takes Center Stage in 'One Lucky Elephant'


It started out, as so many things in his life have, with a childhood fantasy: David Balding, a Harvard dropout who left the presitigous university to pursue, eventually, a career as the ringmaster of his very own circus, needed an elephant.

“I remember an adventure book for schoolboys, and a scene with the hero riding an elephant,” says Balding, 69, who attributes his early fascination with animals to his father, a well-known horse trainer. “That image somehow stuck with me, though I’ve never been able to find the book again as an adult. 

“At some point, I decided I wanted to run my own circus, and I knew I needed an elephant – that goes back to P.T. Barnum, who used to say, famously, ‘When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant.’ And the stories I read as a child influenced me then, too. Flora, for instance, takes her name from Babar and Celeste’s only daughter. ”

Flora is the name of the African elephant, born in Zimbabwe in 1982 and orphaned two years later by ivory poachers, whom Balding rescued to star in Circus Flora, the St. Louis-based one-ring circus he founded in 1987. For the next 13 years, Balding and Flora seemed inseparable; he treated her like a daughter, on stage and off, and, as Lisa Leeman’s new documentary One Lucky Elephant attests, she embraced him as her surrogate parent.

In 2000, Flora performed her last show. By then, Balding knew it was time for her to retire from circus life, and planned to return her to Africa, where she could live among the native elephants. “She loved being in the circus to begin with,” he says fondly. “We lived a wonderful life together for many, many years.

“But as she grew older, and specifically when she became a teenager – as often happens with teenage girls – she became withdrawn. She loaded herself in her trailer and closed the door. I used to joke that she wanted her own phone. Clearly, though, it was time for her to be with other elephants.”

Could Balding bring himself to part with his daughter, as he initially intended, and as several trainers insisted he must? That is one of several compelling storylines that unfold, simply and poignantly, in Elephant, which debuts tonight at 6 p.m. PST on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network.

Another, which Leeman doesn’t address specifically, but which invariably looms large over the proceedings, is whether Flora should have performed in the first place. Countries including India, Bolivia, Peru, Austria and Finland have instituted prohibitions on the use of wild animals as circus attractions. Was Flora really so lucky, as the film’s title suggests, or did she escape one miserable fate only to find another?

Watching Balding, who resembles jolly St. Nick both in temperament and physique, doting over Flora, you’d be hard-pressed to question the depth of his affection for his 10,000-pound little girl; more to the point, her attachment to him is undeniable.

Yet while Balding acknowledges regrets about adopting Flora – he wishes he’d rescued a second elephant to keep her company, adding that his days as an owner are definitively over – he’s not asking her (or anyone else) for forgiveness.

“I personally believe that our goal as humans must be to live in harmony with each other, and with other species,” he says. “It’s a very small world, and extinction is forever. What I firmly believe also is that Flora would have been killed if she’d stayed in Africa. I know there are animal-rights people who think that would be preferable to the life she’s had. I don’t believe that for a second.

“I think she had a good life, and she has a good life now. My conscience is clean. If I had to do it over again, I would have had two elephants – they are social animals. I’m too old now [to own another elephant], and I don’t think it would be right, so we will stick with domestic animals. But there are circus elephants who are well looked after, who would be devastated to be separated from their trainer partners. It’s not a black-and-white issue by any means.”

Leeman, who applauds Balding for acting counter to his own self-interest in giving up Flora, agrees, citing the intimacy evident in their interactions. (Filmed over 10 years, Elephant developed into a “father-daughter interspecies love story,” she says.) Yet the onetime Sundance Film Festival honoree (for 1990’s Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman) doesn’t dodge questions about the circus and its ethically dubious treatment of animals.

That said, she doesn’t have any easy answers, either. “We know a hell of a lot more now about elephants than people knew in the ’80s, when David got Flora,” she says. “We know now that they have stealth recognition in mirrors, that they live out their lives with their families in the wild. We’re in the midst of a changing paradigm about how we see other species.

“Someone said once that documentary filmmakers are unconsciously channeling the zeitgeist, and I think that’s what happened in this film. One of the things I really learned [from making it] is to look at other species as fully sentient beings – they experience joy, friendship, grief, sadness and anger. We’re going to start relating to them differently when the majority of people sees that. But I don’t want to paint the wrong picture. There is such a thing as cross-species communication, and David and Flora had it.”

One Lucky Elephant premieres on the OWN network tonight at 6 p.m. PST. For more information, click here. To contribute to a charity formed to support Flora's future endeavors, click here.

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