Current Weather
The Spy FM

‘One Lucky Elephant’ Is One Engaging Character

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 9, 2011

Like dolphins, elephants are too playful for their own good. They like to learn tricks, and to please their new human friends. Next thing they know, they’re in showbiz.

That’s what happened to Flora, an orphaned baby elephant purchased in 1984 by David Balding for his one-ring circus. In one sense, Flora is indeed One Lucky Elephant, the title of Lisa Leeman’s engaging documentary. The Missouri ringmaster had always wanted an elephant, and as a childless bachelor he treated Flora as a surrogate daughter. He even named the circus after her.

But Flora’s interest in performing dwindled as she aged. Raul Gomez, her trainer, says the African elephant became like any other teenager: “She liked to go in her room and close the door.”

After 16 years, Balding (who eventually married) decided that his star attraction needed to quit the circus and find a permanent refuge. That’s when Leeman arrived, planning to document Flora’s transition from pet and performer to — well, to elephant. It turned out to be a long journey.

One Lucky Elephant follows Flora and Balding for a full 10 years, as various options appear and then evaporate. Flora might go to a Botswana safari park, where she’d be with other elephants but also have contact with humans. Balding disapproves of most zoos, but a few of them he’d accept as Flora’s retirement home.

There’s another tantalizing possibility: Carol Buckley, another person who performed with an elephant for years but finally concluded it was wrong, has a sanctuary in Tennessee — but she takes only Asian elephants, which are smaller and less aggressive than their African cousins.

Flora’s appeal relies partially, of course, on anthropomorphic conjecture. Viewers can’t know what’s on the elephant’s mind at her final circus performance, as she waves farewell to her fans with a red handkerchief. But the moment sure is adorable. Treating Flora as sort of human is not mere sentimentality, however; she really is sort of human, if only by virtue of having accepted Balding as her adoptive dad. When she cuddles him with her trunk, it’s not a routine she learned in order to delight the paying customers.

Ultimately, anthropomorphism becomes the movie’s battlefield. A female psychologist, Gay Bradshaw, decides that elephants like Flora have post-traumatic stress syndrome. (Her claim is underscored by a brief but harrowing montage of elephants being brutalized.) Balding, whose style is more pragmatic, disputes this approach to elephant psychology, but by then he’s no longer in control of Flora.

Is Flora a little lonely and sometimes moody, or is she profoundly scarred and victimized? Balding is supported by William Thieson, the Pittsburgh Zoo’s elephant savant, while Buckley takes Bradshaw’s side. The conflict almost suggests a fundamental divide between contemporary male and female worldviews — except that Balding’s wife, Laura, agrees with her husband’s less Oprah-atic analysis.

Despite tracking the story for a decade, the filmmakers didn’t capture any major breakthroughs on film. And the story of Flora’s search for a permanent home, despite some intriguing missed opportunities, isn’t quite the stuff of great drama. One Lucky Elephant succeeds instead as a character study, while gently raising questions about human use and misuse of animals. And while its story is inherently bittersweet, the movie has many charming moments. After all, it’s about one smart elephant. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

7PM to 8PM Folk Salad

Folk Salad

Folk Salad Hosts Richard Higgs and Scott Aycock play an eclectic mix of Folk, Singer/songwriter, Americana, Bluegrass, Blues, Red Dirt, and anything else we happen to like that week.

Listen Live Now!

8PM to 9PM For the Sake of the Song

For the Sake of the Song

Greg Johnson, owner of The Blue Door in Oklahoma City gathers the best Red Dirt musicians in the region for his show.

View the program guide!

9PM to 12AM SpyLab


Katie Wicks is our resident international superstar DJ. She hosts SpyLab, a dance mix show on Saturday nights and co-hosts the largest weekly dance party in OKC, Robotic Wednesdays. She has had two original dance songs chart in the World Top 100 Beatport charts. She has been hired to DJ in L.A., NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Portugal, Spain and Costa Rica.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center