Great Circus Elephants

What is still the main reason most people go to the circus, the only performing act without a single negative vote in the survey? The elephants! Part of the reason is the apparent contradiction between their enormous size and their paradoxically sensitive looks and disposition.

The largest Africans tend to be somewhat taller and leaner than their heavier cousins, the Asians. That distinction doesn't do much good in identifying domesticated animals, which may be younger and smaller than their potential maximum growth in the wild. Still, it's easy to tell the difference between an Asian and an African elephant: The African has huge floppy ears and a domed head, while the Asian has little ears and two bumps on top of its head. Africans can sport the longer tusks, over twelve feet if they are not broken off in battle or hacked off by poachers.

Among the elephants' more impressive characteristics are their tusks, the middle incisor teeth of the upper jaw; only some Asian females have no tusks. They will grow around two inches a year throughout the elephant's life, new ones replacing broken-off ones. Domestic elephants frequently have theirs trimmed or removed for safety purposes. Elephants are extremely light-footed and able to move in total silence, because they are basically walking on tip-toe, supported by a large pad under the heel that cushions the foot like a running shoe. There are two temporal glands on the elephant's head, from which a gummy substance may ooze when he or she is in an excited state. During "musth," which occurs only in mature males, the substance is thick and foulsmelling. It is apparently associated with sexual dominance during periods of competition for mating. Trainers agree that elephants can be unpredictably temperamental and dangerously violent during musth.

 Elephants are covered with a stiff bristly hair, too tough for razors. Circus elephants are given haircuts ever so delicately, with a blowtorch, and they seem to love it. Their hide is tough and thick, varying from three-quarters of an inch to three inches, but it is extremely sensitive. They can feel mosquitoes landing on them, and a hard slap or blow from the handle of an elephant hook by a trainer is most certainly painful. Most sensitive is the end of his nose, or trunk. The end of an Asian's trunk has a finger for grabbing objects; an African's trunk has two fingers. There is a large hole in the center of an elephant's skull at the base of its trunk, and many people think that the found skulls gave rise to the legend of the Cyclops, Homer's one-eyed giants. The trunk is a multi-purpose instrument for smelling, grabbing, and making a great variety of noises for communication. With it, an elephant can whistle, chirp, squeal, thump on the ground, trumpet, and rumble. Much of the rumbling is at a pitch too low to be heard by human ears, and carries mating calls over great distances to other elephants. The trunk may also be used for holding, blowing, or lifting water to the mouth. It can not be used like a drinking straw, however, since after all, it is primarily a nose.

A circus elephant will drink from 50 to 100 gallons of water a day, much more than little boys who dreamt of running away to the circus to water elephants could ever have managed. A circus elephant will also eat up to 100 pounds of hay and sweet feed every day. Its inefficient digestive system allows it to eat almost anything, half of which is wasted. Fresh grasses are a favorite, but peanuts, tobacco, stale donuts, and paper will do in a pinch. Elephants are sexually mature at around fifteen to twenty years; they can live up to seventy years. Pregnancy lasts about 23 months, and the average female may produce around four 200 pound newborns during her lifetime.

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