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Elephants Among Us: Two Performing Elephants in 20th-Century America

Elephants Among Us: Two Performing Elephants in 20th-Century America

by M. Jaynes

Born in the 1970s, Stoney the elephant spent his life traveling and performing with his family. In 1994, he was injured while working in Las Vegas. He died after a nearly year-long medical confinement in a storage barn behind a hotel. The pages within chronicle his short life and tell the complex story of the people who knew him and those who tried to save him.


Born in the 1970s, Stoney the elephant spent his life traveling and performing with his family. In 1994, he was injured while working in Las Vegas. He died after a nearly year-long medical confinement in a storage barn behind a hotel. The pages within chronicle his short life and tell the complex story of the people who knew him and those who tried to save him. Stoney is the most important elephant you ve never heard of. Also within is the story of the elephant Big Mary, who in 1916 was hanged from a railroad derrick after killing a man in Tennessee. Here an effort is made to combine previous scholarship into a new considered retelling, with the elephant as the core of its focus. Big Mary died at the beginning of the twentieth century, Stoney at the end of it. Both performing elephants underwent disaster, and both can tell us something about ourselves.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
- To the fascinating yet troubling stories of language-using great apes, Lucy, Nim, Koko, Kanzi, and Chantek, we now can add the remarkable life of elephant Stoney with all its joy and tragedy. We haven t figured out how to do right by the emotional and intelligent non-humans who encounter our culture and educate, entertain, and enlighten us. Stoney, in these pages, sets us straight.
—H. Lyn Miles, Ph.D.

Product Details

Earth Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Elephants Among Us

Two Performing Elephants in Twentieth Century America

By M. Jaynes

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2012 M. Jaynes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78099-706-3



Elephants and Humans

This book is about two elephants, Stoney and Big Mary.

In 1995, Stoney the Elephant died behind a Las Vegas hotel and casino after an eleven-month medical confinement in a windowless warehouse. In 1916, a circus owner executed Big Mary for killing a man by hanging her from a railroad derrick. This book details their stories, particularly that of Stoney.

Animals entertain us, and sometimes they pay for our sins. Humanity has a long history of interaction with animals, and elephants are no exception. Humans have killed elephants in extraordinary ways. We have hanged elephants. We have electrocuted them. We have gunned and cut them down. We have run them down with trains and buses. We have exploded them with land mines and destroyed them with wartime napalm. For millennia, they have died in captivity from disease, overwork, and torture.

Many people claim to like elephants, and public interest in their stories tends to run high. Too often public awareness of elephants is superficial, informed not by fact but by the caricatures of these animals as presented in entertainment. Because of this fetishizing, we have pressed elephants into service where we can see them and be around them. From Julius Caesar's Rome to the current elephant displays in traveling circuses and zoos, it is apparent humans enjoy these animals. Their grandeur draws us; their greatness intoxicates. Much too frequently, our interest occurs at their expense.

Very few people know of Stoney the Elephant, and a full-length work has never centered on him until now. Understanding what happened to him and his trainer is not an easy task. This book is largely an attempt to equitably document and understand what happened to Stoney and his trainer. After years of research, I feel an affinity for them both.

And I still can't believe what happened.


Birth and Early Years

Stoney was an Asian elephant born on June 17, 1973, at Portland's Oregon Zoo, also known as the Metro Washington Park Zoo. The zoo transferred Stoney when he was less than a year old to animal trainer Ken Chisholm and a children's zoo in Montreal. From there, the respected animal trainers Mike and Sally LaTorres bought Stoney for $6,500 from the Hunt Brothers International Animal Exchange, keeping him for the remainder of his life.

In the wild, male elephants often stay with their mothers for up to eight years, and females remain in the herd under the guidance of a matriarch for life. Male elephants, or bulls, leave the herd during adolescence and spend the majority of their lives as semi-solitary animals, though kinship bull-packs do loosely form.

We know a fair amount about Stoney's family. He was part of a group of sixteen captive-born elephants between the bull Thonglaw and other cows, including Stoney's mother. In 1947, a trapper caught Thonglaw in the wild when the elephant was a very young Cambodian juvenile. Berry then transferred Thonglaw to the Seattle Woodland Park Zoo and then to the Portland Zoo, where he sired Stoney and many other elephants. Thonglaw died at the age of 27 during an operation under anesthesia the year after Stoney's birth.

In indigenous ranges, elephants can live more than sixty years, and for reasons not completely understood captive elephants often live much shorter lives than their free-living counterparts do. In 2004, the average life expectancy of captive Asian and African elephants in the United States was 44.8 and 43.3, respectively, though some have lived quite longer. An Asian elephant once lived to age 86.

Another elephant trapper caught Stoney's mother, Pet, in Thailand in 1959. She was also transferred to Seattle Woodland Park and then to the Portland Zoo, where she lived for many years. She suffered from degenerative arthritis, a very common demise of zoo elephants caused (among other things) by standing on concrete (Elephants should always be standing on dirt floors, according to Dr. Elliot Katz of In Defense of Animals). The zoo euthanized her on August 2, 2006, at the age of 51. Stoney's parents did their part to contribute to their species' rapidly decreasing gene pool.

In addition to Stoney, Pet birthed four other elephants between 1963 and 1982. She also gave birth to another one in 1991 that lived only one day. The online Elephant Database lists for him neither a name nor a cause of death. Stoney's maternal siblings who survived birth include Dino, Judy, Sung-Surin (also called Shine), and Teak, (also called Rajah). Information regarding them is available at the Elephant Database. Stoney's father also sired other elephants at the zoo.

After Mike and Sally LaTorres bought Stoney, he soon began training for their animal act. They were nice people, it was a very small operation, and Stoney was the only performing elephant. Sally was married to Mike and was with Stoney from the time the couple received him in 1976 until their divorce when Stoney was thirteen. Very little information is available regarding where Stoney performed around the country or how he spent the winter months. Nonetheless, a somewhat grainy picture of Stoney's early years has been pieced together.


The Easy Years: 1973-1986

Some animal trainers are abusive, but generalizations are unproductive. Sally LaTorres is a pertinent example. When Sally and Mike received Stoney in the mid-seventies, there were not many elephant trainers in the United States. Many of them routinely utilized practices that many of today's professionals consider excessively forceful. In fact, the best elephant performers in the business trained Sally and Mike. Techniques of dominance training, such as chaining and the use of bull-hooks (a controversial fireplace poker-like tool also known as an ankus or a guide), were commonplace and still are in many places. The trainers taught Mike and Sally to deprive elephants of food in order to stave off musth, a period of sexual aggression in bulls that makes them difficult to control. It was because of their skill in applying these techniques that Mike and Sally LaTorres were respected animal trainers.

Though many believe elephants should not be used in performance, advocates of the practice point out that the practice of elephant training has made advances. Some no longer employ the brutal methods often depicted on undercover training videos. Sally LaTorres now believes the methods she learned were flawed and no longer supports them. In fact, she is an advocate of non-dominance training and has become an animal advocate. At any rate, in the seventies elephant trainers largely believed that the only way to keep an audience safe was to establish complete dominance over the elephant. This involved dominance training with bull-hooks and other brutal techniques. The animal advocacy group Born Free, USA defines bull-hooks on its Website:

The bull-hook is a training device used to train and control elephants. It is also called an ankus, elephant goad, or elephant hook. The handle is made of wood, metal, or other substantial material. At one end is a sharp steel hook and poker, similar to the shape of a fireplace poker. Both ends of the bull-hook are used to inflict damage. The hook is used to apply varying degrees of pressure to sensitive spots on an elephant's body, causing the elephant to move away from the source of discomfort. When the hooked end is held, the handle can be used as a club, inducing substantial pain when the elephant is struck in areas where little tissue separates skin and bone.

Surprisingly, the skin of elephants, though apparently rough and thick, is as sensitive as human skin. Elephant trainers still debate the use of the bull-hook. Many believe it is necessary to establish control of the large animals and does not require forceful application, while others believe the tool is abusive. Despite the fierce debate, bull-hook use remains a standard practice with many trainers. The subject is complicated.

Sally says if she had known then what she knows now, Stoney would have had a much better life. However, at the time, she continues, they were simply ignorant. In fact, many elephant trainers, mahouts, and keepers proclaim a great love for the animals under their supervision. Surely many have the elephant's best interest at heart. Some—perhaps even most—truly love the animals. This is certainly true of Sally, who has always loved Stoney deeply. It also seemed that Stoney cared for Mike and Sally in kind.

Sally was essentially Stoney's mother. He was barely three years old when they got him. Many elephants in the wild nurse up to two or three years of age, and Stoney was completely dependent upon his new family for all his needs. Stoney quickly bonded with Sally, whose role as primary caregiver meant she saw to his social needs, while Mike filled the roles of both trainer and showman. To Sally and Mike, Stoney was a son. Mike cared very much for Stoney, but it was Sally who would most often visit with him and take him on walks and let him graze throughout the five-acre property the couple lived on during those halcyon years. Mike tended to be more reserved in his expression of affection for Stoney while Sally beamed and crooned.

A souvenir program documents Stoney's earliest known circus appearance. It is a program and coloring book for the International All-Star Circus managed by Nordmark and Hood Presentations in Sarasota, Florida. It features a very young Stoney performing with Mike. Stoney's act description reads, with alternate spelling, "Stonie: Mike LaTorres presents that peerless Pasha of Pachyderm presentation and his Indian elephant. Literally a ton of fun." Page two of the handbill features three pictures of a very young Stoney performing three tricks. The handbill is not dated, but Stoney appears to be no more than four or five years old. This provides an approximate date of 1977. In the pictures, Stoney, sporting diminutive tusks and a headband, sits on his haunches. In another, he performs an elevated front leg stand, while the third shows him in a headstand. The couple trained Stoney early and put him to the stage with little delay. The headline on the page reads, "Clear the Way! Here Comes Baby Stonie."

The program features several human and animal acts. After intermission, the program touts "Uncle Heavy's Pork Chop Review," which featured "the only trained, performing pigs being presented anywhere today." The second half of the show featured clowns, trapeze artists, balancing acts, a unicycle act, and an escape by an artist from a locked trunk. The "Vasques Chimps" are held up as "the cutest of circus babies," but it is Stoney who is the last act, the grand finale. Elephants, even young ones, have been the stars of the show from the earliest years of the traveling circus. Early circuses were judged based on two things: how many cars they had in their trains, and how many elephants they had in their shows. The more elephants a circus had, the more grandeur and respect it commanded.

As Stoney neared his teenage years, he performed at circuses, Renaissance fairs, children's parks, and other venues. It remained most often Sally who would visit with him, walk him, and tell him he was loved. For over a decade, she slept mere yards from the elephant each night. Stoney slept in the rear of the semi-trailer, and the couple slept in the front. There was a pass-through, and Sally would spend many hours listening to him sleep or eat.

The shows continued for years as Stoney grew larger. Sally was a part of the act, and later in Stoney's life she is featured in several publicity shots along with the elephant and LaTorres. In one photo, Stoney stands on his back legs, and Sally sits proudly atop his neck. She never came to complete terms with the fact that Mike insisted Stoney do the hind-leg stand trick as well as the hind-leg walk. Even at thirteen, Stoney did not like it. She says he would always rise into the hind-leg walk hesitantly. She had less of a problem with the back-leg stand, since he was young and did those easily. Mike eventually insisted on the hind-leg walk since it was a standard trick in elephant acts and he wanted to be profitable. At that point, both Sally and Stoney complained. The discussions got very heated, and the walk was never easy for Stoney.

Elephant trainers and performers often claim that some elephants really do enjoy performing while some do not. Of course it may be impossible to judge enjoyment, but some elephants require much less manipulation to learn and perform the tricks. Some elephants take to it and at least appear to enjoy the routines, while some do not cooperate and seem to loathe the ring. Sally reports that Stoney did not love to perform, but he did not always hate it either. He spent many hours of traveling days inside his trailer with very little activity, and at least performing was exercise. If nothing else, perhaps performances helped Stoney stretch his legs.

Critics of the industry often cite isolation and inadequate space as two dominant issues with elephant performance. In some cases, there is brutality to consider. Other than occasionally, Stoney did not often require physical discipline, though invariably Mike was the disciplinarian. Sally points out that Mike was never aggressively violent with Stoney. Stoney simply didn't require much punishment. He was cooperative and easygoing. The physical discipline administered to Stoney generally was not harsh. As Sally says, Stoney was a good boy and always behaved well for her and Mike. There were brutal elephant trainers at that time on the American circus circuit; Mike LaTorres was not one of them.

Stoney very much seemed to enjoy giving children's rides. These rides usually occurred in a parking lot or a field near a fairground, the children waiting impatiently for their turn to climb on his back in wonderment. It was a leisurely way for the LaTorres family, including Stoney, to pass an afternoon. Sally fondly remembers spending hours sitting next to Stoney on the ride platform, his trunk wrapped affectionately around her leg or arm. Stoney would often nap on cooler days or if it were raining. During the rain, Sally would put a blanket or rain tarp on his back and sit under him. Mike, easygoing and likeable, enjoyed talking to the attendees and answering questions about Stoney in the afternoon sun.

What the elephant seemed to enjoy the most, however, were the many Renaissance fairs in and around Colorado that they would attend when Stoney was a preteen. This generally involved getting Stoney into period garb and simply standing around or walking peacefully through the fairgrounds while people petted or fed him. This was by far Stoney's favorite work, and people always reacted kindly toward him. Sally pointed out that during the years she was with Stoney, they never failed a single USDA inspection, and Stoney was properly fed and cared for, according to the standards of the time. Indeed, research verified her claim.

Life was not always work for Stoney, at least not year round. During the winter off-season, the couple and Stoney lived on a fenced five-acre property in Florida complete with an elephant barn. Times during these winter months were mostly good ones. Stoney would help Sally build fences on their property, passing rails to his family with his trunk, and he liked to play with Sally's dog, a Border Collie named Travis who became his close friend. While building fences, Stoney would often get distracted by the ponies the couple also had on the property and playfully chase them about. An elephant can definitely pose hazards, but due to his easygoing manner and calm demeanor, they never worried about his wandering the property. Sally tended to her fence building, always confident in Stoney's playful, nonviolent nature.

Mike had a dog too, a Rottweiler-Labrador mix named Maggie, but it was Travis the Border Collie of whom Stoney was especially fond. Those years were not perfect for the couple or Stoney, but during the nights, Travis would often sit or sleep between Stoney's legs, perched in the rear of the semi-trailer where Stoney slept, both of them content. Things seemed good, and it seemed they would always be.

The fact that Stoney bonded so closely with Travis is not a surprise. As do most highly intelligent animals, elephants need close familial and kinship bonds due to their great need for socialization. A leading expert on captive elephants and founder of the first elephant sanctuary in the United States, Pat Derby, reports that when elephants in captive single situations are deprived of sociality, the elephant's need for familial connections is so paramount that it will bond with "just about anything on four legs." She has seen solitary elephants bond with dogs, goats, and even donkeys. Stoney's need for elephantine companionship was never met, but he found a connection with Travis.

In Florida, Sally, Stoney, Travis, and Mike would take long walks, and Sally often would sit in a swing on the property and let Stoney go off-leash, free to graze and wander around being an elephant in the afternoon sun. Sometimes Stoney and Travis would go off by themselves and explore the fenced five acres. As much as she could, Sally gave Stoney time off his chains.

The famous Renaissance fair in Larkspur, Colorado, was one of Sally's favorite recurring gigs. This particular fair was perfect since they only worked weekends in the lovely countryside with nothing but nature surrounding them. During downtime during the Larkspur festival, Stoney, the dogs, and Sally would wander in the woods and enjoy the sunshine. Stoney would graze and knock over small trees and eat them. (Elephants in their indigenous habitats display this same tree destroying behavior.) She would find a nice patch of sun, and Stoney would wander and explore the area, always curious and kind. He never went far and frequently reported back to check on Sally before heading out again in another direction. Sally and Stoney would wander through woods as often as they could. Like other elephants, Stoney loved the water. Finding a creek or a pool was a grand occasion, and the elephant usually made a great mess of everything.

Excerpted from Elephants Among Us by M. Jaynes. Copyright © 2012 by M. Jaynes. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

M. Jaynes is an American writer living in the Southeast. He has published on various animal ethics issues. Elephants Among Us is his first book.

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