Elephants in Manhattan: Ringling Bros./ Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to town, New York, NY

Diana, MaceVindaloo

It was officially the first day of spring and it was so cold that we didn't bother looking up the air temperature. We ran home, bundled up, ran back out again and tried to get a good spot outside what is usually the 34th Street exit from the Queens Midtown Tunnel. It was said that between 11:30pm and 12:30am, something magical will happen: elephants will walk up 34th Street, westward ho!, no matter what or how much you had been drinking!

The Ringling Bros / Barnum & Bailey Circus is coming to town! Though a "parade" through many a smaller town is a traditional thing to announce that the circus was here and you'd best get to the bigtop on the edge of town, in New York City there is a different reason for the informal display. Purportedly, the rail cars in which the large beasts are transported are simply too large to go through the train tunnels ... and then, there is nowhere to unload the animals. I mean, do they climb the stairs at Penn Station to get to Madison Square Garden (which is actually build directly above the train station)?

So the solution is to get the elephants off the train on the other side of the river and have them walk through the car and truck tunnel for the last couple of miles. They come out of the Midtown Tunnel, then walk along 34th Street till they reach the Garden. Accompanying them are their trainers and handlers who run alongside, trucks full of other staff and reporters and photographers, a variety of cattle, and a big ol' NYC Department of Sanitation combination street cleaner and pooper scooper!

We decided to brave the cold to see the elephants on this not-unusual spring night in NYC. Yeah, you can go to the zoo to see them, or even buy a ticket to the circus. But there's something special about staying up till past midnight and seeing a line of big beasts sauntering past shops and scaring traffic! (Besides, young nieces were coming to town, and won't they be jealous when we whip out the photos of elephants! Okay, our motivations are warped, but we're not ashamed.)

As bundled up as we thought we were, others were much better prepared. Two young ladies wore synthetic fabric fashioned into bear suits ... they sure did look warm, and the cops even smiled at them. Others huddled in ATM booths to stay out of the elements. Many stood at the mouth of a parking garage, because such places vent a lot of excess head from the buildings above them. Of course, every time someone needed to turn in to park their car, there was a collective groan, but in general, people moved out of the way as needed.

New York's Finest seemed to take this assignment as something routine — they'd just been on St. Patrick's Day crowd alert, so a bunch of elephants were likely not even really special, though there were protesters and a lot of traffic considerations.

We did catch the cops at their obligatory pep talk, where they were told what procedures to follow for "irregular incidents" and a shortlist of potential problems to expect. It was interesting that they didn't seem particularly cold — throughout the long wait, they didn't stomp their feet or shiver. Either their training was good or their clothing was way warmer than it looked.

As we said, it was COLD and very windy, but there was a rather healthy-sized crowd lining 34th Street. They were contained behind parade barriers, and the police tried to make sure that everyone stayed behind the fencing. There were about 1,000 in attendance: a lot of New York University students, local residents, and the very very curious, as well as animal lovers, novelty seekers, and protesters.

11:30pm came and went and no sign of elephants, and it was about midnight when the tunnel was closed to traffic. "Not long now," we thought ... the crowd discussed how fast the elephants walk, how long is the tunnel, thus how long before the pachyderms showed up, etc. Then 12:30 came and went ... and no elephants. Children started to cry, couples started whining, and people started swearing they'd leave if no elephants came out soon!

It's funny how many thought whining would get the elephants to come out sooner ... it's not like this is a paid event, or that the elephants are just huddles behind the tunnel exit suffering from stage fright. But it was very late, and a lot of us had hoped to be back in bed by now, or at least sitting in a warm place with a drink ... or looking for a bathroom, anyway!

1:00am ... and no elephants. People started leaving. How much longer could it be? And what was holding them up? We hoped the elephants were okay ...

Then at 1:15am, a car with very bright lights and people walking in front of it showed up ... The traffic was halted by the police on duty ... and the crowd was giddy with hypothermia and relief and they got all excited and started shouting and jumping! The elephants were here!

There were seven or eight pachyderms, of various sizes, and they were much smaller than we'd expected, and cuter, too. They walked in a single file, holding each other's tails with their trunks (causing one otherwise macho looking guy to gush enthusiastically about how cute they were doing that — we hope his girlfriend did not observe this, or maybe she'd think it was charming?). And they didn't really walk ... they jogged at a rather rapid rate, and it was tough to get pictures. It's not like an elephant will stop and pose for you — they are single-minded and they tend to concentrate hard on the task at hand. You can't get that close, as they are surrounded by police and very protective handlers. And they are big and don't come with emergency brakes!

The animal rights protesters gave out leaflets (with bad/wrong information, and they were soundly harassed for their blind ignorance, we're happy to say), carried signs, made a lot of noise, and tried to run alongside the jogging elephants, perhaps trying to unnerve them or incite them to trample the crowd? It made us understand, once again, that many of these protesters are hardly the brightest of any given bunch. Thankfully, the elephants didn't seem to care, though their handlers were plenty irritated.

These elephants are actually bred in Florida and Barnum & Bailey are lauded for their elephant conservation programs. They were not "kidnapped from Africa in chains" as the leaflets insisted, and these were not abused animals. In fact, these are Indian / Asian elephants (the smaller ones with the tinier ears), and they seemed healthy and well-cared for. As stated, the humans caring for them were more agitated and stressed than any of the animals.

Apparently, someone on the press truck fell off and nearly got crushed by the lead elephant! Interestingly, no one seemed to have any sympathy for the human; they were more concerned for the elephant's "feelings" maybe? Plus we'd all been fed enough tales about how when a wild animal kills a human, they themselves are "put down." So I think were were all fearing that the elephant might be unjustly executed? (Remember, it's way past our "school night" bedtimes and it was cold, and maybe things that made no sense were good brain fodder that night.)

We also heard that the elephants were delayed due to a traffic accident in the tunnel, and the broken glass had to be cleaned out thoroughly before the beasts could walk through. Totally understandable, but we wish someone had let someone know, so that the information could have been passed through the crowd. It might have made the wait more endurable.

The elephants did turn the corner without any trouble and toodled on past the shops and buildings and traffic lights and cars. We wonder what they thought of Macy's department store past Sixth Avenue. And an unexpected bonus — the donkeys, zebras, horses, etc. who followed ... and a bunch of us cheered for the sanitation truck following them, too!

We'd waited over 2 hours, for 30 seconds of pachyderms and four-legged mammals ... and it was worth it!

When at last the elephants and their accompanists were out of eye-shot, the crowd dispersed very quickly and the streets were appropriately deserted for 2:00am on a chilly winter's night. We think most people ducked into bars to use the 'loos and to try to warm up. We ran home and jumped into beds, hoping to stop shivering before falling asleep! And we got to dream about elephants prancing around, some dressed in suit and tie to walk to Wall Street, some in construction helmets to help move girders around, and some with spectacles to lecture to the NYU students.

One need not drink much (if any) booze to see elephants, after all!

Last 7 photos on the right from www.gothamist.com ... remainder www.wookieehut.com

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