Animal trainer Catherine Carden works with Duchess

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animal trainer Catherine Carden works with Duchess, an Asian elephant on Thursday in the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff

The story we carried last week about how animals are treated at the circus was interesting, but I couldn't help wondering: What did Duchess think?

Duchess is an 800-pound elephant, a performer in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Bash circus that ends today at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

The story told how the circus invited ZooMontana personnel out to the arena to see how Duchess and assorted other critters were treated. The zoo people seemed to have been impressed by the level of care.

Still, there was no word from the animals. That's why I headed out to the arena with a friend of mine, a horse whisperer fluent in the language of several other species as well.

We spoke to Duchess, a noble creature who deserves the name, and to a Jack Russell terrier named Sparky and a horse named Champ, an Arabian gelding.

Duchess, whose doleful eyes seemed to betoken a good deal of hard-earned wisdom, said she had no real complaints about working for the circus.

"The tricks aren't all that difficult," she said. "The headstand definitely took a bit of practice, and I am not naturally much of a dancer, but I got the hang of it all easily enough."

Duchess begs to differ

I asked her about the common criticism one hears — that an animal should not be demeaned by being forced to perform unnatural tricks and humiliating capers.

"I don't consider it humiliating to stand on my head or engage in a bit of dancing with my friends," she said. "I'll tell you what's humiliating: the guy with the shovel who picks up my manure. I eat like a horse."

"There you go," Champ said. "Typical stereotype. Why an animal of your girth should talk about eating like a horse — and all of us so trim and fit — is beyond me."

"Roger that," Sparky said. "I was afraid she was going to talk about the dog-eat-dog world inhabited by her relatives in the wild."

Duchess stamped the ground thoughtfully and chewed a clump of hay before resuming.

"Now that you mention it," she said, "my great-grandfather on my mother's side was eaten by a lion. I used to work with lions in another circus and it always gave me pleasure to see them being made to jump through a hoop by that silly man in tights."

Duchess also said that while the circus might not be for everybody, it was better than life in a zoo, since she liked to travel.

"And I've heard stories about a friend's cousin who works as a logger in India," Duchess said. "That sounds really miserable."

Sparky spunky

Sparky, you will not be surprised to learn, was enthusiastic about his job with the circus.

"Are you kidding? I've got so much energy I could do 10 shows a day. I get to ride bicycles, zip down a slide and prance around on the back of Champ here. I wouldn't exactly call it work.

"I've got friends who spend the whole day waiting for their 'masters' to get home from work so they can go for a 20-minute walk on a leash," he continued. "No, thank you. I'll take the circus."

Champ agreed with Sparky, saying he preferred the exciting life of a circus horse to being owned and ridden by just one person, the fate of several of his acquaintances.

"And to be honest, I like to be admired," Champ said. "There's nothing like wearing a feathered headdress and dashing around the ring under a spotlight. And I do enjoy having Sparky on my back, yipping and barking."

Sparky did have one complaint. He said he hates those motorcyclists who roar around the globe-shaped cage.

"It's frightfully loud. It also detracts from the dignity of the circus, which has always been built on the strength and perfection of the body — of both humans and animals. Give me a Bulgarian gymnast to an Evel Knievel wannabe any day of the week."

"Well," I said, "the PETA gals are not going to like it, but I must say you all do seem happy. And you look good, too. How old are you, Duchess?"

"Why, I don't remember," she said.

"But I thought an elephant never..."

"Another stereotype!" Champ said. 

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