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The Circus Elephant

Many years ago in England a circus elephant named Bozo was very popular with the public. Children especially loved to crowd around his cage and throw him peanuts. Then one day there was a sudden change in the elephant’s personality. Several times he tried to kill his keeper and when the children came near his cage he would charge toward them as if wanting to trample them to death. It was obvious he would have to be destroyed. The circus owner, a greedy and crude man, decided to stage a public execution of the animal. In this way, he could sell tickets and try to recoup some of the cost of losing such a valuable property. The day came and the huge circus tent was packed. Bozo, in his cage, was in the center ring. Nearby stood a firing squad with high-powered rifles. The manager, standing near the cage, was about ready to give the signal to fire, when out of the crowd came a short, inconspicuous man in a brown derby hat. “There is no need for this,” he told the manager quietly. The manager brushed him aside. “He is a bad elephant. He must die before he kills someone.” “You are wrong,” insisted the man. “Give me two minutes in the cage alone with him and I will prove you are wrong.” The manager turned and stared in amazement. “You will be killed,” he said. “I don’t think so,” said the man. “Do I have your permission?” The manager, being the kind of man he was, was not one to pass up such a dramatic spectacle. Even if the man were killed, the publicity alone would be worth millions. “All right,” he said, “but first you will have to sign a release absolving the circus of all responsibility.” The small man signed the paper.

As he removed his coat and hat, preparing to enter the cage, the manager told the people what was about to happen. A hush fell over the crowd. The door to the cage was unlocked, the man stepped inside, then the door was locked behind him. At the sight of this stranger in his cage the elephant threw back his trunk, let out a might roar, then bent his head preparing to charge. The man stood quite still, a faint smile on his face as he began to talk to the animal. The audience was so quiet that those nearest the cage could hear the man talking but couldn’t make out the words; he seemed to be speaking some foreign language. Slowly, as the man continued to talk, the elephant raised his head. Then the crowd heard an almost piteous cry from the elephant as his enormous head began to sway gently from side to side. Smiling, the man walked confidently to the animal and began to stroke the long trunk. All aggression seemed suddenly to have been drained from the elephant. Docile as a pup now he wound his trunk around the man’s waist and the two walked slowly around the ring. The astounded audience could bear the silence no longer and broke out in cheers and clapping.

After a while the man bade farewell to the elephant and left the cage. “He’ll be all right now,” he told the manager. “You see, he’s an Indian elephant and none of you spoke his language, Hindustani. I would advise you to get someone around here who speaks Hindustani. He was just homesick.” And with that the little man put on his coat and hat and left. The astounded manager looked down at the slip of paper in his hand. The name the man had signed was Rudyard Kipling.

Bits and Pieces, Dec. 1991, pp. 19-23