Eating Lunch with Elephants

(photos by Karley Osborn)

We sent D Magazine intern Karley Osborn to eat lunch, and she came back with photos of these wrinkly friends.

This is a story about circus elephants who do lunch.

Jump for the circus.

Orange shopping carts sectioned off the El Rio Grande parking last Thursday, turning the space into an elephant-sized cafeteria for the afternoon. MEGA 107.5 blasted music from a tent outside the supermarket as super(sized) stars Bo, Cindy, and Jenny from the Shrine Circus chowed down on their favorite treats from the produce aisle: red apples, carrots, and bananas.

The purpose of the pachyderms’ public snack break? A little bit of promo for the Shrine Circus, running March 30th-April 1st at the Fair Park Coliseum.

Heavy traffic on I-30 caused the circus’ blue transport truck to arrive about 30 minutes behind schedule, so when the three Asian elephants did finally disembark they were Hungry with a capital H. Bo and his lady-friends pre-gamed with an appetizer of hay, then suited up in harnesses bedazzled with red and blue stars before walking trunk-in-tail to the center of the parking lot where their banquet tables awaited.

Weighing in at 12,000 pounds and standing 11 ½ feet tall, Bo the bull is the largest performing elephant in the world. As it turns out, he just may be the greediest, too.

“When it’s time to relax, [the elephants] love their sweet grains. That’s like their dessert at the end of the day. We have to watch Bo because he’ll steal the sweet grain from the girl elephants,” says Bill Cunningham, executive director of the circus.

As the elephants continued to swipe up piles of produce, we learned other interesting facts: that elephants can eat up to 150 pounds of food a day and are meat-eaters in the wild, although our circus friends stick to a primarily celeb-style vegetarian diet. Well, except for Bo.

“Bo’s been known to eat hot dogs,” says Cunningham. “He ate 61 hot dogs and then spit out number 62. That was his limit.”

As it turns out, troublemaker Bo’s history is as unique as his appetite. In an ironic twist of every Water for Elephants-type melodrama we’ve ever been exposed to, Bo was born in captivity and kept as the pet of a private individual before being rescued by the circus. Yep, you read that right.

According to Cunningham’s account, Bo was having trouble in his environment and his owners just couldn’t quite figure out why. In came George Carden of George Carden International Circus, who immediately noticed three things: that Bo was bright, that Bo was intelligent, and that Bo still had his testicles and was going into musk.

“And that’s, you know, not a good combination for a 12,000 pound animal,” Cunningham explains.

We can only imagine.

After a 50,000-dollar surgery, Bo was back on his feet. Soon he became not only a star performer for George and his elephant-training son Larry, but a family member as well.

“I’ve been with George sitting from here to across the parking lot, and Bo is honking because he hears George just talking,” recalls Cunningham. “And George will go, ‘knock it off, son!’ And the elephant, 60 yards away, will honk back at him.”

See, folks? Looks like sometimes it’s okay to run away to the circus after all. To catch up with Bo, Cindy, and Jenny, be sure to grab tickets to the Shrine Circus.  If you happen to find yourself backstage after the show, make sure you have red apples from El Rio Grande on hand—that’s their favorite snack.

Oh, and one last thing you should probably know:

“When you’re feeding them the sweet grain, they purr like a cat,” says Cunningham. “To feel love in a different way—a version of that is to have four elephant trunks around you.”

Now that’s the kind of spectacle that deserves to be called the greatest show on earth.


  • Drew

    Uhm, shouldn’t someone have removed the produce labels from the fruit BEFORE feeding the elephants? Granted, they’re small labels compared to obviously large elephants, but…

  • Teresa Gubbins

    I’m sorry and disappointed to see SideDish carry the water for these guys AGAIN this year. If you’re going to promote this event, at the very least present the other side of what it means to be an elephant or animal in a circus.

    Whether the animal was born in the wild or lived as someone’s pet, becoming a circus performer is not a happy fate. Animals in circuses spend nearly all of their time chained. They’re not roaming around free. They’re transported in boxcars and trucks, and subjected to extreme weather conditions. They’re expected to perform even when they’ve suffered physical injuries.

    The Carden circus has ties to Ringling, whose terrible record regarding its treatment of animals, especially elephants, resulted in a lawsuit and fine last year. Carden was cited by the USDA last year for a lack of veterinary care for the elephants.

    The Shriners are able to avoid responsibility by the USDA and local animal control for the way the animals are treated, because the Shriners do not own the animals used in their shows.

    It’s not only a miserable life for the animal, it propagates the idea that animals are our amusement.

    The best kind of circuses are the ones where humans perform, not animals.

  • Jason Becker

    Well stated, Teresa!

  • Ilise Lipton

    It is disappointing that you have characterized these elephants as having been “rescued” by the circus. If you’d like to see who could have provided them true sanctuary, look at, the website for The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Circuses provide lives of almost constant chaining, confinement and transport, not to mention beating with sharp hooks and restraints to teach them tricks that are demeaning and dangerous.

  • Jerry Nelson

    This is just disguesting! Circus animals are not rescued by the circus. I used to think the Shriner were honorable but their circus is no better than others! The fact that they do NOT actually own the animals they have makes them no better, it’s just a legal loophole.

    The almost close up of the food tells me that this publicity stunt was set up by someone who didn’t even have the decency to wash the pesticides off the fruit before feeding it to the captive elephants. I do not know if I should be enraged or just deeply saddened. O.K. I’ll go with really disappointed and very angry!

  • Gail Dalby

    This is not a news story, but a tale of misery. Have a look at the elephants faces, their eyes are dull and there is no smile just misery. And yes elephants have smiley faces in the wild, take a look at photos of them and compare.

  • dfw75208

    This lollipopland story is disgusting. Ms. Shih and Sidedish should be ashamed for promoting this.

  • Nancy

    Everyone needs to take a chill pill.

  • Rick

    Nancy says that the people who have taken Carol Shih and the magazine editors to task for producing a propaganda piece for the circus should take a chill pill. It’s sad that people who don’t care whether animals are hurt and threatened throughout their lives feel a need to get in the way of those who do care.

  • The article is totally undigestible. First tip off that something is wrong with this picture – the elephants are wearing stupid hats. The elephants may be happy at the moment of the photo because they are getting fruit treats, but you can be sure they are not happy with the bullhooks, the tazers, the constant chaining, the joint destorying positions they are made to get into and their hurting feet. Yes, the circus gives a regular PR spin as they prey on the good hearts of those who cannot imagine the cruelty these carnies inflict on their animals. But we are being lied to, and it is up to the media not to promulgate lies. As Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the famous elephant orphanage said, in a circus or zoo we are not seeing an elephant, we are seeing a tragedy.

  • Julie

    Although everyone is certainly entitled to an opinion, unless one has personal experience with this circus and these animals, perhaps one may be too quick to jump to the comment section. I personally do not so I did a quick google search and came across pros and cons in regard to the present-day treatment of circus animals. And because I am not personally familiar with the treatment of the elephants in this article, I can’t jump to broad generalizations on either side. I am, however, hoping this particular circus affords these beautfiul animals the attention and care as presented in the D article. As I did find positive as well as negative reports, see below in fairness for consideration:

    Q: How does Carson & Barnes Circus feel about the regulation of performing animals?

    A: We welcome regulation, because it protects the well being of all animals. There are many federal animal welfare statutes and state and local laws in place to protect animals and prosecute those who neglect or mistreat them. We adhere to the policy set forth by the NAIA on performing animals. You can read this policy here.

    Q: Do we have studies to support what we are saying?

    A. Studies have been done by Texas A&M Animal Behavioral Specialist Dr. Ted Friend.

    Another study by Dr. Martha Kiley-Worthington, one of the world’s foremost animal behaviorists, commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, revealed that circus animals are healthier and live longer that either animals in the wild or in zoos. . She believes that current efforts by animal extremists to ban circuses with animals does not serve the animals best interests.

  • Nancy

    All I’m saying is, get off the computer and live your life. If you feel so strongly about the issue, don’t take it out online, do something about it.

  • Susan Gaspar

    For anyone interested, there is a Peaceful Protest at this circus on Sunday, meeting at 12 noon in front of the Sears Center in Hoffman Estates. The group was there tonight as well, and many people with paid tickets left in disgust after learning the truth about how these elephants at this particular circus (and ALL animal circuses for that matter) are treated.

    In short, animals should not be in circuses. There is NO humane circus. All of them use cruel and inhumane methods to “train,” control and manipulate the animals so they “perform.” Humane animal circuses simply do not exist, and there is so much evidence to this effect that it is embarrassing. In fact, there is plenty of specific documentation and even video footage about the animals at this very circus—I am sorry to make it sound grisly and unpleasant (not what circuses want you to feel), but it is.

    That link is a link to the Facebook event page if you wish to participate in the protest. Feel free to show up with signs and show your support of the animals. There is also a petition circulating, which you can sign at the protest or online.

    Thanks for listening, and maybe in our lifetime we can wipe out animal circuses forever.

    Susan Gaspar
    Chicago, IL

  • Witness

    The link listed above is anything but “peaceful.” PETA protesters have threatened and harassed arena staff and employees of the circus, and have been questioned by police in Hoffman Estates. As of this morning, at least one PETA member was confronted by law enforcement for making false statements. The photographs are NOT of the circus they are protesting, they are of other animals.

    We have the right to disagree with and voice those opinions, but we do not have the right to threaten other people. Yesterday, one of these PETA escalated to a physical confrontation.

    This is cultural insensitivity and bigotry of the highest order. These people and animals are born into the circus, and the animals are members of their families. The people and animals spend their entire lives together, their bond is so great.

    @ Julie has it right. The good circuses, the cruelty-free circuses, encourage and openly welcome USDA standards for the SAFETY of the people AND animals.

  • Darcy

    Elephants and other animals are not “born” into the circus. They are not born wanting to perform tricks for humans amusement. An elephant in the wild is a highly social,caring animal. But do you see them standing on their hind legs performing tricks? No.. So in order for them to do this they must be broken. Their mind,body and spirit is broken until they are ready to be trained. Its disgusting how much torture this entails. ALL circuses do this. Their is no other way i guess they feel than torture to train. As for PETA members being violent, i have been an active participant in many PETA events and in EVERYONE without exception we were always told to use non threatening messages,and in no way do they advocate violence. Peta wants to STOP violence against animals, why would they advocate violence against humans? We all just want the torture of these majestic animals to stop. They dont belong in the circus.

  • lindsey

    Hi! My name is Lindsey, and I organized the Peaceful Protest at the Sears Centre yesterday.

    The above statement is false. Our group of 25 demonstrators were respectful and well-organized, and our demonstration was arranged with the assistance of the Hoffman Estates police department. The police who were present at the demonstration will report that the protest went without incident.

    Except one.

    A corporate employee of the circus approached me during our Peaceful Protest. He came within inches of my face, stated my full name, and proceeded to tell me all of my personal information that he had found about me on google. When a male member of our group approached this man in an attempt to protect me, the man called security and told the police that the demonstrator had “touched” him, which of course he had not. The police soon saw this to be true, and that was the end of it.

    After locating this man’s telephone contact information, I phoned him to give him my cell number, as I wanted to invite him to call me at any time with questions or concerns, instead of creating unnecessary conflict between he and our group. The conversation, unfortunately, did not go as well as I had hoped. The police will continue to provide protection for us when we resume our demonstration on Sunday.

    The above comment from “Witness” is an attempt to erase what indeed happened yesterday, and place a negative spin on well-meaning citizens who acted peacefully within their rights of the first amendment. Using the words “cultural insensitivity”, and “bigotry” in an internet thread are inflammatory and do not apply in this situation.

    It is encouraging to see all the posts on this thread, educating the public about the plight of animals in entertainment. Thank you to everyone who continues to act as a voice for the voiceless.

  • lindsey

    Oh – one more thing, re: the comment above from “Witness”. Not one from our group has been confronted by law enforcement whatsoever, let alone for “making false statements”. Silly.

  • Lindsey

    Also, contrary to the above post from “Witness”, not one member of our group even spoke to arena staff or employees of the circus (except for the one I mentioned), and not one member of our group has been contacted or “questioned” whatsoever by any Hoffman Estates police at any time. Again; silly. (As we left the protest, the officer assigned to us gave me a big smile and hug.) Thank you everyone. It is important for the sake of these suffering animals ignore intimidation tactics, stay professional, continue providing facts, and focus on our goal. Keep up the good work.