Rheta Johnson: Why Carol matters

April 27, 2013 6:03:22 PM

Rheta Grimsley Johnson -


In childhood, summer vacation was synonymous with Florida. One year, in a slight departure from fishing the state's central lakes, we visited the winter home of the circus in Sarasota. 


I was entranced. The circus was a place where everything glittered, where animals were stars and a ringmaster wore a top hat and tails, and kept perfect order in his gauzy world. 


This was before I saw the murder movie "Greatest Show on Earth" and learned the dark side of clowns, before my consciousness was raised about animal abuse, before too much knowledge made enjoyment nigh impossible. 


I saw many circuses in my youth. But in the past couple or three decades they seemed to have disappeared, at least from my radar.  


Whenever I'd spot a circus poster on a telephone pole now and again, I'd feel nostalgic. They looked like childhood.  


I was walking in a Colorado Springs park a couple of years ago when the circus train stopped on a peripheral track. I was surprised how exciting that was. I half expected to see giraffes' long necks sticking out of their rail cars. 


I guess I'm guilty of still loving the circus, at least my first impression of it. 


So it broke my heart when I recently read about the drive-by shooting of Carol the Ringling Brothers elephant. Some lowlife in Tupelo, Miss., intentionally shot at her, police there said. She is recovering. A big reward has been raised for the capture of the small shooter. 


There's been a lot of online discussion asking why this matters. One commentary even suggested that with humans getting shot right and left, it seems to show a lack of perspective to grieve for a wounded elephant. 


Humans died in Newtown and Boston, after all. Even the Elvis-impersonating accused and now exonerated poison-letter-writer has a Mississippi connection. Why should we care so much about Carol? 


Here's why. The circus elephant is the embodiment of innocence. She works to please for peanuts. She gives her life to entertain us humans. She travels from pillar to post and sleeps on the ground and does the same thing day after day. She silently and eloquently expresses herself with her graceful motions and sad eyes. 


If such a creature becomes a target, is there any hope for our society?  


Carol the circus elephant is a symbol. She stands for a different era, before entertainment moved to the casino and parents took sons to laser-gun halls. She stands for a lumbering, slower time, when we weren't all suffering from an annoying attention deficit. Taken from it, she stands for the wild, for the natural world. 


She is an Asian elephant, an endangered brand, but she's not as endangered as common human decency. 


Carol stands for childhood, when summers were endless, our fathers were tall, our mothers squeezed lemons for lemonade and the circus came to town.