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If all goes well, a four-legged circus star soon will be doing her final curtain calls. Circus Flora ringmaster Ivor David Balding is negotiating with a wildlife refuge in Botswana to have Flora the elephant integrated into a herd of her own kind.
"We are hoping to be able to retire Flora from circus work to a place where she'll have the opportunity to continue working with people and plus be able to live in a natural surrounding with other elephants, and where she might possibly be bred," says Laura Balding, David's wife. The 17-year-old African elephant is "about the right age for this transition," she adds.
Flora has delighted thousands since Circus Flora made St. Louis its home base in the late 1980s. The circus' 8-foot-tall, 7,000-pound namesake -- David Balding says he weighs the elephant on truck-stop scales -- has always been incorporated into the loose storyline of the circus' past performances, at times pouring spaghetti and water on people or "hiding" children trying to escape from pursuing clowns. "We call her the light comedian of the circus," says Circus Flora publicist Judi Roman.
According to Roman, Flora's farewell performances with the circus will be May 5-21 at a site to be announced, most likely the previous venue, Forest Park, or possibly a downtown lot near the City Museum. After that, gods willing, Flora and her human entourage will board a transatlantic freighter bound for Africa.
Botswana neighbors Zimbabwe, Flora's native environment. In June, David Balding heard about an elephant refuge there, Abu Camp, run by Randall Moore, an American elephant trainer. Balding had been pondering Flora's repatriation for some time, and he decided to take the next step.
David Balding was in Texas last week with the wintering Flora and unavailable for comment. Reached by phone, Laura Balding says that David has already visited Abu Camp "to see if it's a good place, and it seems to be a good place." The camp, she explains, is in Botswana's Okovango delta. "This delta has a park around it, which belongs to the government, which in turn leases this spot to Moore for his use."
There are two distinct elephant herds in and around Abu Camp, a native one and a domesticated one comprising animals Moore has brought in. "Some he got from circuses or zoos or places where they weren't getting along," says Laura Balding. "There are a few babies that came from a culling project in Kruger National Park, and he's training them." Essentially, Moore shepherds his gargantuan charges, she says. "He doesn't just turn them loose at night. He keeps them there in the compound, feeds them, and when they go out in the day to play in the grass, he goes out with them. There are wild elephants nearby that they encounter from time to time, and if he has to shoo them off, he does so by firing his rifle in the air."
Well, sometimes shooing away the wild elephants doesn't work. "In fact," Laura Balding says, "a couple of his elephants had calves sired by native elephants right nearby. They do have the opportunity to be bred and, if appropriate, he might reintroduce them into the wild."
Flora, of course, would become a member of the semitame, formerly domesticated herd, some of which work as transports for safaris. As for successful reintroduction into the wild, St. Louis Zoo director Charlie Hoessle says a calf of Flora's would have a better chance. He says that, worldwide, about 100 species of zoo animals are being introduced back into the wild and that it is a transgenerational process: "The animals that have been successfully reproduced in zoos are brought back (to indigenous environments) and kept in big paddocks. There they are bred, and their offspring are raised as free from human contact as possible. Those offspring then are better able to cope with the intense competition they will find in the wild."
In this elephantine stomping ground, Flora would be not so terribly far in geographic or genetic distance from her origins. Flora was about 2 years old when she was orphaned and subsequently adopted by David Balding.
David became the young elephant's guardian and best friend. He gave Flora a purpose and a role, that of the centerpiece of a charming one-ring circus. Circus Flora began in 1987; as time passed and the style of the performance gained attention, people flocked to the big candy-striped tent where no seat was more than 40 feet from the ring. It was always an intimate experience, and, unlike the megapalooza three-ring affairs, one could actually smell the excitement. Plus, it was an ensemble company. Folks could attend year after year and they would recognize the Wallendas, the graceful strongman Sacha Pavlata, Cecil MacKinnon as narrator YoYo and, of course, the portly, bearded, top-hatted David Balding and his towering gray sidekick.
So what will Circus Flora do for an elephant? The show must go on, says Charlie Robin, Circus Flora's new executive director. "The circus is very able to continue providing the theatrical presentation using the circus arts as its foundation. Flora will always be the soul of this circus, but there are enough other elements that can be brought together and used without having an elephant as the sole focus."