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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 29 2013

Eriksmoen: Mistreated elephant escaped during ND fair a year before killing her trainer

The Great Depression of the 1930s almost totally destroyed the circus industry, an industry that was already on the ropes prior to the financial collapse of Wall Street. Two of the circuses that survived the Depression that continued their tours to North Dakota were the Cole Brothers and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.

During the 1940s, some new circuses emerged that began touring the state. They were Clyde Beatty, Carson & Barnes, Kelly-Miller, the Daily Brothers and the Murphy Brothers. However, it was Ringling and Barnum & Bailey that dominated, putting on the biggest shows and drawing the largest crowds.

When the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey came through North Dakota in 1949, the circus had an added attraction. A new crew member working “16 hours a day” was Cecil B. DeMille, the famed film director. He believed there was a good movie to be made about the circus, but he was not certain what it was.

DeMille observed everything he could while the circus was in Grand Forks on Aug. 18, Devils Lake on Aug. 19 and Minot on Aug. 20. Finally realizing what it was, he rushed back to Hollywood with the essence of the story in his mind. His circus movie, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” was released on Jan. 31, 1952, and was voted best picture of the year by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 1906, an organization became involved in the circus industry that is still having a large effect today in making certain that circuses are available annually across this country and much of the rest of the world – Shriners International.

At first, local Shriners worked in cooperation with existing circuses or they assembled acts and animals on their own. In 1932, Hamid-Morton was formed to operate as the official Shrine Circus in the U.S. and Canada. On March 12, 1921, the first circus sponsored by the Shriners appeared in North Dakota when the El Zagal Shrine in Fargo brought the circus to their city.

One of the main objectives of the Shrine Circus in the U.S. is to raise money to support children’s hospitals and burn units across the country. In North Dakota, the Shrine Circus has performed for many years in the state’s largest cities. The circus operated without incident in almost all of the shows except for an occasional display of concern about the way some of the animals were treated.

These concerns became more intense and more unified in the 1970s, and in 1980, the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was formed. In regards to circuses, PETA’s major complains were about “unhealthy living conditions, as well as violent animal training methods.”

There were two diametrically opposed philosophies existing as to how animals should be trained. One was to be the animal’s best friend, and the other was to be its undisputed master.

The latter method received most of its impetus from Isaac Van Amburgh, who was known as “The Lion King.” He “reportedly beat his animals with a crowbar.” When he entered the cages, the animals would often growl and then usually back away from him. Van Amburgh answered his critics by quoting Genesis 1:26, “God had given men dominion over animals.”

The results of mistreatment of circus animals manifested itself for the first time in North Dakota in a major way on July 2, 1993, the first day of the North Dakota State Fair in Minot. One of the main attractions was Tyke, a female African elephant. At the fair, Tyke escaped from her trainer and then trampled her groomer, crushing three of his ribs. The elephant led “sheriff’s deputies on a 25-minute chase through the fair’s midway before being captured.”

It was later learned that Tyke had gone on a rampage in Altoona, Pa., two months earlier. It was also reported that many complaints had been leveled against the elephant’s trainer, Allen Campbell, for cruelty in his treatment of Tyke and against the company, Hawthorn Corp., for allowing such treatment.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture documents, Campbell was observed beating the animal “to the point where the elephant was screaming.” On Aug. 20, 1994, in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tyke turned on Campbell and crushed him to death. She then “bolted from the arena and raged through the downtown area for half an hour” before police killed her, shooting Tyke 86 times. As a result, Tyke has become a symbol for animal rights organizations.

Because of Tyke’s treatment and subsequent action, a number of municipalities have passed laws prohibiting the use of undomesticated animals in performances within their communities.

The composition of circuses has changed a great deal in the past century, but it still remains a popular event whenever it comes to town. As the Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Two things only that people anxiously desire – bread and circuses.”

(Next week, we will highlight a number of notable North Dakotans who have been employed by circuses, including a U.S. congressman, an award-winning author, a famed band leader, a popular singer and a couple of movie giants.)


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.