Circus brings rare elephants to town   

By Abby Morris
star staff
amorris@starhq.com

  Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages will have the opportunity to see two rare Asian elephants as the world famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus comes to the Tri-Cities area.
  After two days of performances in Bristol at Viking Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday, the circus will open Friday at Johnson City's Freedom Hall Civic Center and run through Sunday.
  Appearing in the show along with acts like the famous Espana family of daredevils, the high-flying Tabares family, a Kossack horse act, Thunder Dome, the Sky Wheel and of course clowns, will be Doc and Gunther, two Asian elephants.
  Doc is seven years old and was named after a veterinarian at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC) where he was born, according to Julia Filz, a spokesperson for the circus. Gunther is two years old and was named after Gunther Gebel Williams, one of the most famous animal trainers to work with Ringling Brothers. Williams worked with many animals, including elephants, before he passed away in 2001. Two-year-old Gunther was born later that year at the CEC.
  Asian elephants have long been a part of the Ringling Brothers family of entertainers. In an effort to help preserve this endangered species for future generations, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey established the 200-acre CEC in 1995 in central Florida.
  "This $5 million state-of-the-art breeding and retirement facility is dedicated to the conservation, breeding, and study of the Asian elephant, of which fewer than 35,000 presently remain in the wild," states information from the CEC. "Though not open to the public, the CEC will coordinate visits by researchers, academicians and conservationists. As a global focal point for the worldwide study of the Asian elephant, the CEC shares its vast pool of knowledge with the rest of the scientific community."
  In addition to the CEC, Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus, worked with a coalition of scientists and other conservation groups in 1997 to secure the passage of the Asian Elephant Conservation Act by the U.S. Congress. "Signed into law on November 19, 1997, this act will help protect the future of Asian elephants by supporting and providing financial resources to conservation programs within the Asian elephant range states," states information from the CEC.
  Asian elephants have several notable differences that makes them stand out from African elephants.
  Asian and African elephants have distinctly different body types. The Asian elephant has two humps on its forehead and a rounded back with its stomach sloping in the middle. The African elephant's forehead is smooth and curved; its back has a dip, and its stomach slopes from front to back.
  While both male and female African elephants have tusks, male Asian elephants have large visible tusks and female Asian elephants have very small tusks called 'tushes' which seldom extend beyond their upper lip. Asian elephants also have smaller ears than their African counterparts.
  To help the elephants maintain their massive size, they have massive appetites to match. According to Dave Whaley, an elephant trainer with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, each elephant with the circus eats approximately 30 pounds of sweet feed, 20 pounds of elephant chow, 10 pounds of grain, 40 pounds of produce, four loaves of bread and between 70 and 100 pounds of hay each day. In addition, they also drink between 40 and 100 gallons of water a day based on the temperature.
  Whaley, who has been an elephant trainer for 14 years, said he finds his work with the animals "very, very enriching" and adds that the animals are wonderful to work with. "It's hard to see myself doing anything else with my life," he said. "It's just great."
  Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey will open their show on Friday at Freedom Hall at 7 p.m. The circus will present three shows on Saturday, at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. as well as two shows on Sunday, at 1 and 5 p.m.