Animal Acts | Act 4: Un éléphant qui se balançait (Elephas maximus indicus)

October 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Blondin Elephant

Blondin – the greatest performing elephant in the world – will at 2 and 7 present the most astounding feat of pachyderm funambulism!

An audience of thousands will gather at Niagara Falls tomorrow in order to witness the most astounding feat of bravery and physical prowess ever to be performed by a wild animal. The mighty Indian elephant ‘Blondin’ will be seen to walk the tightrope – a single, tensioned cable spanning the roaring cataract – apparently mindless of any spray that might dampen the wire … even as it bends alarmingly under his weight! In spite of his great mass – and his lumbering gait – ‘Blondin’ will balance across, almost as if taking a casual walk in a city park, perhaps even pausing to bow at mid-point to his admiring and cheering audience!”

The most famous high wire walker was Charles Blondin who crossed the gorge at Niagara Falls seventeen times on a tightrope. Many people tried to emulate this feat. Although a poster exists advertising a Blondin elephant – from Sanger’s Grand National Amphitheatre, Lambeth, 1881 – it is, of course, extremely unlikely that a spectacle such as is described above could ever have taken place in reality.  For one thing, elephant funambulists were actually equipped with a double wire.

Even so, these feats of balance must have felt extremely precarious for an animal that might weigh in excess of 5000kg …

The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) is one of three recognised subspecies of the Asian elephant and native to mainland Asia. Since 1986, Elephas maximus has been listed as Endangered by IUCN as the population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, estimated to be 60–75 years. Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.

Elephants were historically kept for display in the menageries of Ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Rome. The Romans in particular pitted them against humans and other animals in gladiator events. In the modern era, elephants have traditionally been a major part of zoos and circuses around the world. In circuses, they are trained to perform tricks. The most famous circus elephant was probably Jumbo (1861 – September 15, 1885), who was a major attraction in the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Asian elephants were always more common than their African counterparts in modern zoos and circuses. After CITES listed the Asian elephant under Appendix I in 1975, the number of African elephants in zoos increased in the 1980s, although the import of Asians continued.

The use of elephants in circuses has also been controversial; the Humane Society of the United States has accused circuses of mistreating and distressing their animals. In testimony to a US federal court in 2009, Barnum & Bailey Circus CEO Kenneth Feld acknowledged that circus elephants are struck behind their ears, under their chins and on their legs with metal-tipped prods, called bull hooks or ankus. Feld stated that these practices are necessary to protect circus workers and acknowledged that an elephant trainer was reprimanded for using an electric shock device, known as a hot shot or electric prod, on an elephant. Despite this, he denied that any of these practices harm elephants. Some trainers have tried to train elephants without the use of physical punishment. Ralph Helfer is known to have relied on gentleness and reward when training his animals, including elephants and lions.

Animal Acts
These sketches represent the first stages of preliminary work for a series of paintings that I am creating to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the National Fairground Archive, based in The University Library, University of SheffieldThis commission will form part of the Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition which will open in September 2014 and run for four months.
This new body of work has been inspired by a number of lively discussions with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the archive. They reflect a shared interest in the changing perception of Animal Acts that has occurred in human consciousness over the last few decades. This change in consciousness towards performing animals has had broad implications throughout society, and acts (in itself) as a powerful indicator of the ambiguities that surround the relationship between the human animal and other species. 

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