Thursday, October 14, 2010

Circus Doctor (1951) - nonfiction

I was standing at a bus stop in Philadelphia once, waiting dreamily for my ever-tardy public transit choice to heave into view through a spring rain, when an unusually designed truck stopped in front of me for a red light. And a small elephant looked out the half-open side door. I gazed in at the elephant, the elephant gazed out at the bus stop, the light changed, and we all went back to our lives. The circus, obviously, was in town.

I've never really liked circuses; the massive Ringling operation, the folksy modern-day tent shows, and the animal-less Cirque all leave me cold. That is, the shows leave me cold. The idea of being part of the circus, on the other hand, is fabulous. All that color and drama to take you away from drab and sordid reality. From Toby Tyler to The Greatest Show On Earth, I've always been a sucker for a circus story.

Plus, classic circus stories are like Westerns; even when they're bad, they have horses.

Circus Doctor

J.Y. Henderson, told to Richard Taplinger

1951, Little, Brown and Company

... the circus's biggest preoccupation was with its horses: Ringling Brothers had a fortune tied up in what was undoubtedly the most beautiful collection of horses in the world. They wanted everything possible done for the rest of their animals too, but experience had taught them that they couldn't expect that to be too much.

In September, 1941, John Ringling North called a young veterinarian and offered him a job. The vet, Henderson, was a partner in a mixed small/large animal practice in Louisiana, and suffering from the physical effects of anthrax. Fascinated by the idea of the circus and believing that the recent advances in veterinary medicine mean a chance to pioneer in the field of exotic animal care, he accepted.

In Ringling Brothers - Barnum & Bailey's winter quarters in Sarasota, Henderson is wary of his new, dangerous charges and takes comfort in the familiar:

On three sides of us there were open stalls, and on the fourth were box stalls where the most favored horses were kept. In the immediate center of the corral were patches of grass decorated with palm trees and a large watering trough... I examined the broad-beamed Percherons, smaller neat hackneys, smart American saddle horses, wild Arabians, the standard-bred horses, stockinged Clydesdales, and Andalusians.

Of course, Henderson treats the wild animals: the bears, which he discovers almost always need worming; the big cats, which seem to have a downright equine knack for strange accidents; a chocolate-loving hippo; and the elephants, who have a tendency to become footsore through walking on concrete so often. He and his wife even raise a particularly winning baby leopard, Sweetheart. His secret to treating animals seems to have been an exacting interest in details. He watches every horse act from the sidelines, noting each small incident like a horse bumping a leg on the ring, and treating the slight bruise before it can get bad. Fascinated by the wild animals, he spends time getting to know them and their trainers.

The busiest place in the world is not a beehive. It is not found by watching the ways of an ant, nor is it an army preparing for an invasion. The busiest place on earth is the grounds of a gigantic circus, two weeks before hitting the road for an eight-month season.

In that first year, with the value of vaccinations still in question, Henderson confidently tells the Norths that vaccinating the circus's 200+ horses will prevent the annual losses to shipping fever and sleeping sickness. That was a success. His attempt to halter two llamas for the parade was not.

While the pen boys stood there laughing, the two llamas chased me all over the pen. I was chastened and emerged unvictorious after being sprayed by both of them from head to foot.

Then there's the frankly alarming camel story, which I don't particularly care to relate in detail. Suffice it to say, camels appear to be extremely open-minded about personal matters most animals tend to regard with a great deal of jealousy. Henderson, perhaps because of this or because camels are just uncooperative patients, says:

I'd gladly walk a mile to keep from operating on a camel.

A year after he joins the circus, Henderson has an experience which irrevocably changes the way he views animals. On an August morning in Cleveland, a flash fire sweeps the menagerie tent, leaving animals dead, dying and badly hurt. Shocked by the aftermath, Henderson is impressed with both the stoicism of the badly hurt creatures and the willingness of those uninjured to go on with the show that night.

I knew then there is something in animal make-up akin to greatness in men. It is not just their size or their swiftness; their fierceness or their power. There is an inner nobility and a kinship to what is enduring in nature.

This is a essentially a collection of moments connected by quick throwaway lines about non-circus life. Henderson went into WWII in 1944 and served until 1946, rejoing the circus with his new wife, Martha, an aerialist. A few pages sum up their courtship, a paragraph goes to the war. A serviceable style, which supports but doesn't elevate the interesting stories, but which allows the author's humor and likeability to come through, and gives space to his passionate and sometimes elequent conclusions. Obviously dated, and some comments are a little depressing, as when he notes that the circus's horses are never put out into a pasture to graze.

And finally, it is a testament to the power of horses to do truly odd, arguably idiotic things that in a book filled with escaping lions, runaway giraffes and very angry gorillas, many of the most memorable mishaps have to do with the horses. A saddle horse, waiting on the ramp into Madison Square Garden, gets her hoof caught in her mouth. A liberty stallion decides to climb the bleachers, reaching the top row before deciding this was a bad idea. An absent-minded parade horse bumps into the tiger's cage and nearly gets scalped.


Billboard magazine article about the Cleveland fire (8/15/1942)

C. Lee Martin et al blog - covers roughly the same period with Ringling

Buckles Blog - covers circus history, features a photo of McClain's elephants

Buckles Blog - photo of Henderson

Circus Historical Society

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) - IMDB

Toby Tyler by James Otis

Other equine info

Henderson was apparently friendly with the Klebergs of the King Ranch, and their vet J.K. Northway, who recommended him to North. Ringling Bros., often bought King Ranch Quarter Horses for their show.


John Ringling North - owner of the circus

Dr. J.K. Northway - vet of the King Ranch

Alfred Court - animal trainer

Damoo Dhotre - trainer

John Sabo - menagerie superintendent

Dick Clemens - cat trainer

Walter McClain - elephant trainer

Rudolph Mathies - tiger trainer

Justino Loyal - horse act

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