Old Mom: Queen of the Circus Elephants


Old Mom flapped her huge ears and swayed her long wrinkled trunk. The journey from Germany aboard the big ship had been long and tiring.

“Come on, old girl,” the men coaxed. Reaching their bull hooks gently behind her ears, they tugged her along the gangplank and pulled and prodded until she boarded the circus train to her new American home.

“I can’t believe that my friend Karl would send me such an imbecile!” the American circus owner wailed a few days later. “He told me that he was sending his prize queen! But she doesn’t know any tricks, and she doesn’t obey a single command.” Angrily he placed a call to Germany.

“It is not possible,” said the shocked Karl. “Old Mom is the smartest elephant in the world. Only because we are friends have I sent her to you.”

“Perhaps she is deaf,” suggested her new owner.

Nein, nein (No, no)!” insisted Karl. “Every morning I would say to her, ‘Wie geht’s Mama (How are you, Mama)?’ or ‘Vas ist los (What’s up)?’ and she would greet me like a child.”

As soon as he hung up, the circus owner hurried over to Old Mom. “Wie geht’s, Mama. Vas ist los?“ he asked.

The huge beast immediately fell to her knees, trumpeting happily. She rose to her feet and shimmied her huge backside in a frenzied dance. Then she curled her trunk around the owner in an elephantine hug. In a strange land, among strange people, finally something was familiar!

“I should have known,” the owner said, chuckling. “A German elephant doesn’t understand English. We’ll find someone to translate for her for a while. Then we will teach her English.”

It wasn’t long before the owner had to agree that Old Mom was one smart elephant! Still, a herd could have only one queen. What would happen when Old Mom met the young leader of their herd?

For three days Old Mom was “just another member of the herd.” Then things changed: All one night the circus train had traveled in a driving rain. When they reached their destination, the circus lot was far from the railway tracks. In between were several bridges that didn’t look quite safe.

“Belle!” the circus owner called to his young queen. “Come and test the bridge.”

The man waited and called again, but the young leader didn’t move. Then Old Mom stepped forward. Cautiously she laid one foot on the bridge and waited for a snap. Hearing none, she placed another foot on the span. Stepping daintily, she made her way across the bridge and trumpeted for the others to follow. Old Mom was now in command!

As a leader Old Mom was strict, but fair. She tenderly guarded the young punks (baby elephants) who came to the training lot for the first time. But she had no patience with lazy young bulls (male elephants). It was a favorite trick of some of them to put their heads within an eighth of an inch (3 mm) of the circus wagons and pretend to push. They could fool the roustabouts, but they couldn’t fool Old Mom. She would thump them with her trunk or seize them by an ear and squeeze it hard. If the bull were much bigger than Old Mom, she would whirl and butt the offender mightily in the midriff. One day a particularly ornery bull appeared in the lot acting meeker than all the rest. His rebelliousness was gone—and so were three inches of his tail!

Old Mom had one superior: Fred, the superintendent of the herd. Only he could punish her offenses.

One day a drifter wandered into the circus lot. For days he teased Old Mom. Bellowing with rage and thrashing her trunk, she tried to warn him. But he wouldn’t quit. One day his abuse was too much. Old Mom snatched him in her trunk and threw him against a wall. Then she seized a nearby bull hook (commonly used to punish disobedient elephants), handed it to Fred, and began to “talk” into his ear, pleading like a naughty child. She wrapped her trunk softly around his body, and Fred slowly dropped the bull hook. Perhaps Old Mom believed that she had talked him out of a spanking, but the truth was that Fred had seen the bully teasing his elephant all week. He ordered the man from the circus grounds and warned him to never return. Fred was Old Mom’s protector as well as her punisher.

Old Mom was smart about everything except what she ate. How she loved junk food! And after consuming great quantities of peanuts, popcorn, marshmallows, cotton candy, lollipops, watermelon, and chewing gum, she would lie on the ground, her huge belly swollen, whimpering and squealing and rolling her eyes. It took gallons of paregoric laced with Jamaican ginger to ease her agony.

If Mom’s sweet tooth was a problem, her real teeth gave her fits! She had one stubborn tooth that was constantly ragged and broken. Fred had tried hardening it, sawing it off, and filing it down. Nothing worked. It kept breaking and cutting her cheek. Finally, Old Mom took matters into her own hands. She found an old rag and packed the offending tooth. Then, apparently knowing that there was danger in swallowing the rag, she unpacked the tooth at mealtimes and laid the rag at her feet. After eating, she carefully repacked it. From then on, Fred always saw to it that Old Mom had a fresh supply of clean rags.

One hot summer day the circus pulled into a lot where there was no dust for the elephants to throw onto their backs to rid themselves of the flies that tormented them. Old Mom spied a gunnysack. Picking it up, she waved it around, and the flies flew away. Squealing with delight, Old Mom shimmied and swatted. Suddenly a young bull snatched the gunnysack from her. When Old Mom smacked him on the nose and he dropped it, a punk grabbed the treasure. Soon the sack was flying back and forth like a football. Fred heard the commotion and came running. He yelled for a boy to get each elephant a gunnysack. Within minutes the entire herd was squealing and swatting contentedly. Not one would give up his prize. Imagine the surprise of the circus crowd that night when Old Mom led the elephants into the ring, waving their limp brown flyswatters!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn