By Lindsay Toler
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When David Balding unfurls the striped tent of his Circus Flora this June, fog will swirl around star-crossed lovers as they're drawn into a world of wizardry and swordplay. Cossacks will spin beneath their galloping horses and rise again on their bare backs. Gypsies will dance, Wallendas will fly. And St. Louisans who've cherished Circus Flora since its birth in 1985 will once again crowd under the one-ring small top and sit breathless as children.
Of course, the circus' namesake, Flora the African elephant, won't be around to slather shaving cream, pluck off her handler's wig amid clouds of talc or serve the troupe yarn-noodle spaghetti. It has been more than two years since the day Balding announced the popular pachyderm's retirement. With a catch in his resonant voice, he promised that Flora, rescued eighteen years earlier in Zimbabwe after ivory poachers killed her mother, would be sent home to Africa to live her adult life in freedom.
But Flora isn't back in Africa. For the past two years, she has been stuck in limbo in a Miami zoo. The frustration may be wearing on her: She made national news in December when she kicked a keeper into a rock wall, seriously injuring him. Balding, meanwhile, changed his mind about the continental shift, what with the poachers and the political instability. He decided to create his own sanctuary on 600 acres of his family farm in South Carolina, where he'd eventually invite a few dozen fellow African elephants to join Flora.
But the 63-year-old ringmaster's strong suit is showmanship, not methodical planning. His father trained racehorses in England and the United States, so Balding grew up on both sides of the Atlantic. He dropped out of Harvard in the late '50s -- seemed wiser to quit than get kicked out, he says -- and wound up producing plays on and off Broadway, managing Jimmy Chipperfield's famous English circus and consulting for Paramount Pictures. All the while, he dreamed of founding his very own circus, with his very own circus elephant. In 1983 the call came: A friend at a Zimbabwe game preserve was bottle-feeding an orphaned elephant. If Balding was still interested, he could ship her over. Two years later, Balding staked Circus Flora's striped tent in St. Louis.
Early in 2001, to raise money for his South Carolina vision, Balding formed a nonprofit called the Ahali African Elephant Sanctuary. He appointed Cristina Colissimo, who'd been planning a film documentary around Flora's repatriation, to the board. Colissimo's father, Robert Yokel, director of Miami's Metrozoo, is also on the board. Yokel agreed to provide a temporary home for Flora at a discounted rate. (A Metrozoo spokesman says Flora costs about $1,000 a month to feed, plus another few hundred dollars for labor.) They're calling her stay a "breeding loan," hoping the zoo's African bull, Machito, will take a shine to Flora. And Colissimo has rewritten her film treatment to wrap in South Carolina, ideally with a pregnant Flora "grazing in the pastures of the first African elephant sanctuary in the United States."
But Flora's South Florida paddock is no love nest. Bulls that live alongside female elephants rarely show much interest in mating because the setup is artificially familial, and Machito is no exception.
And Flora's new home has failed to materialize. Ahali projected that the sanctuary would raise $100,000 in donations and membership fees in 2002 and another $150,000 this year. But so far the organization hasn't even drummed up the $25,000 that would require it to file a report with the Internal Revenue Service. Donations, Colissimo says, are being used to subsidize Flora's feedings at the Miami zoo.
On that score, Flora has gained about a ton since her retirement. But she's depreciating fast on the Circus Arts Foundation books -- from $30,000 in 1993 to $13,001 in 2001. She's also becoming a liability: Before last December's set-to with the keeper, Balding settled a 1999 lawsuit with a woman Flora accidentally crushed against a tree.
Fans have urged Balding to send his elephant to a sanctuary run by animal trainer Pat Derby. Famous for her work with Flipper and Lassie, Derby is the internationally renowned director of the Performing Animal Welfare Society. She recently opened a 2,300-acre refuge in San Andreas, California, complete with a lake, plenty of forage and two rescued African elephants Flora's age.
The circusmeister bluntly dismisses PAWS' invitation: "They don't believe in performing animals -- and I do."
So what will Balding do with his elephant?
He's not quite ready to say. "There are several options," he asserts. "She's happy at the Miami zoo, and they are happy to keep her. There's sanctuary in this country. There's the Disney organization [the Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando]. The Discovery Channel would like her to go back to Africa. I like the adventure of going back to Africa, but the political instability is scary. On the other hand, she needs to be with other elephants, and I think I'd like to breed her. I think she'd like to be a mother."
He promises he'll have news in a few weeks.
Colissimo, who says her film treatment has garnered "potential promises from several networks, contingent upon her destination," is pushing for Africa, where she sees Flora as a pathfinder for other rescued animals to return to nature. The filmmaker says she has researched a protected preserve in Tanzania and, as a backup, one in South Africa. If all goes well, Flora will cross the ocean in a 747 this summer, accompanied by Balding and Colissimo, who'll film her as she finds a place in a wild herd.
Perhaps she can teach them the spaghetti trick, or her barber routine.
"Africa would be a great risk," worries former Ahali board member Judy Peil. Besides the dangers on the ground, there are the intangibles involved in transporting a 7,000-pound elephant and teaching her how to forage in the wild.
Balding, she believes, never considered any of this when he adopted Flora. "He didn't think," says Peil, her tone equal parts affectionate and exasperated. "Here was this darling little elephant who needed a home. But she's gonna outlive us all."