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Behind The Big Top: A Conversation With An Elephant Handler

The 'Greatest Show On Earth' arrived in Greensboro this week. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus has been performing for nearly a century. That longevity has led to some circus family traditions that cover multiple generations. 

Young children in strollers and on shoulders are trying to contain their excitement as they wait on the side of the road across from the train tracks in Greensboro. And then, at dusk, from over a hill come a few elephants and several horses.

At dusk, the elephants lumbered to town.
Credit Jeff Tiberii
At dusk, the elephants lumbered to town.

The animals arrive from their last show in Greenville, South Carolina on the circus train.  They’re headed to their temporary homes at the Greensboro Coliseum. Ringling Brothers has this traditional animal walk where some fans can meet a few of the performers. Other than the staccato of hooves smacking the pavement, the animals are quiet. 

Five-year-old Damien is bundled up along with his sister Zoey and their parents. This animal walk is something his dad David remembers doing as a child, in Orlando, Florida. "I was probably my son’s age, he’s five and a half, when I first went to the circus and I remember pretty vividly moving forward we did the similar thing with my parents, so it was nice to pass down that tradition to them," David Rudenberg said. Dad, Damien and the rest of the family pile into the station wagon and head over for dinner at Stamey’s, a local barbeque staple.

"I didn't have a puppy or a dog or anything like that, I had a 9-thousand pound elephant." - Joey Frisco

Meanwhile, the elephants stride over to the Coliseum. "For myself I was born into it so I didn’t have a puppy or a dog or anything like that, I had a 9-thousand pound elephant," Joey Frisco, the circus elephant handler, said. He’s originally from Peoria, Illinois. Today he resides wherever the elephants are. "I’m actually third generation and hopefully one of my five kids will be the fourth."

Frisco’s five kids range in age from one to ten. In addition to raising five children his wife works in the circus daycare and looks after 35 little ones. That group speaks seven different languages.

Joey Frisco’s other children speak an eighth language - elephant.

"Right now the two elephants are trying to instigate rough-housing between the pens, so they’re definitely feeling good in being elephants right now, " Frisco said. "They always try to steal the show. So tell me who is this that is chatting or trying to join our conversation? Her name is Sarah she is 11, 12-years-old. She’s been on this show since she was about 4 or 5 years old. She knows I’m talking about her, that’s why she’s talking."

The Friscos live in an R-V feet from the elephants.

In total, there are 300 staff members who work on this tour, traveling the entire year as they make 90 stops and perform about 400 shows. Most of the employees live on the Ringling Brothers train, complete with living quarters, a 24-hour dining car and climate controlled space for animals.

Protestors commonly picket the circus tour.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says that the stars of the show are being held against their will and are regularly abused in training. Frisco says he cares deeply for the animals, has never hurt any of them and that Ringling Brothers treats the animals very well while following federal law. 

Joey Frisco says he’s OK if his five children don’t follow in the family business of working with elephants; just as long as they don’t turn into lion tamers.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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