Performing pachyderms

TWENTY elephants anxiously wait backstage, slowly rocking back and forth, bobbing their heads up and down, their chains clanking. They rock to soothe their knees from the heavy load. `They know when it's their time to go on by the music,'' says animal handler David Lee Walker of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. ``They're very good on their feet, just like ballerinas, even if they look clumsy.''

For the elephants, however, circus work is no cakewalk. They are on the road 49 weeks a year, traveling to 33 cities for 535 performances, riding on crowded trains for 12,765 miles.

Sometimes they perform in three shows a day. Like chorus girls, they have their costumes -- sequined blankets and headgear -- changed frequently.

Trainers use poles with hooks to keep the animals in line. Whips are used, too, but mainly for the sound rather than the limited impact on the elephants' thick skin. But more than anything, they respond to voice commands -- in German or English -- especially from elephant trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams.

He prefers almost all female elephants (one is a young male) because the males grow too big and too mean. The oldest is Suzie, who is 66. Some of the others are named Bambi, Banko, Congo, Cheetah, and Banannaok.

If they were in the wild, says Walker, the elephants would have to forage for food. Here they are fed and happy. On stage they almost look like they're smiling.``They love showing off,'' he says.

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