Circus people have long been known for bravery, but it takes a different type of courage to show up in the heart of the American circus to screen a documentary on the alleged ills of the industry. The team behind Tyke Elephant Outlaw will do that Saturday when they host the world premiere of the film at the Sarasota Film Festival.
“In another festival you can get lost,” said producer-director Susan Lambert. “Here we have a story to tell.”Tyke tells the story of an elephant who escaped from Circus International in Hawaii after killing her trainer before being gunned down and killed by police in the streets of Honolulu. The story of Tyke’s death became a rallying cry for animal activists angry about circus treatment of pachyderms, and the documentarians with this film hope to do the same now. But circus professionals are already calling the expertise of the filmmakers into question, saying they won’t stand a mischaracterization of practices.
“We are experts on taking care of elephants,” said Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. “They may be experts on how to make a movie, but this film is not a reflection of what we do.”
Filmmakers say Tyke serves as a protagonist for the documentary, but the real sources of information are the trainers and professionals who worked with Tyke, including trainer Tyrone Taylor, who will attend the premiere. “This film is the story told through the people who knew her and experienced what happened to her,” said producer-director Stefan Moore. “The story is told through extraordinary archive footage and the trainers, handlers and circus industry insiders involved in the controversy in Honolulu.”
It also turns to animal rights and welfare organizations who have long been critical of the practice of keeping elephants in captivity.
Of course, the practice of elephant-keeping has been in the news of late thanks to a decision on the part of Ringling Bros. to phase out elephants from touring shows, a decision announced in March this year. Payne, who stressed in an interview with SRQ that the circus had nothing whatsoever to do with the 1994 incident with Tyke and considered that a tragedy, said the decision to move elephants into a successful conservation program and take them out of shows by 2018 had nothing to do with filmmaker efforts. “It wasn’t a factor because we didn’t know this film was coming out—and we don’t care,” Payne said. “It’s not representative of what we do.” Payne also said conservation efforts specifically with the Asian elephant were helping ensure the species didn’t fall into extinction.
The filmmakers are glad the decision was made, though Moore questions why the phase-out of elephants will take as long as it will, and he feels other animal captivity issues have the same central problems.
In the course of an interview on the film, Moore embraced comparisons to Blackfish, a documentary that opened the Sarasota Film Festival two years ago and led to tremendous damage on Sea World’s credibility and financial stability after it was broadly distributed by CNN Films. Online, many suggested the Ringling decision to phase out elephants was in many was a pre-emptive act to avoid the same damage to reputation. Payne denies that, but Moore finds some validity to the suggestion.
Lambpert said the movie wasn’t intended entirely as condemnation of the industry. She said the filmmakers also spoke with lobbyists who spoke of the tradition of the circus. But many of the issues, she said, don’t hold as much muster in the modern world. While some circus defenders say the performances are a way to bring elephants to children who wouldn’t otherwise see them, the filmmakers say the circus environment is unnatural and an inaccurate representation of the animals’ lived.
“Apart from whether people hit elephants with bull hooks and whips, which we all know does happen and anyone would be an idiot to say it doesn’t happen, but wild animals have family lives and ways of rearing young, and they are torn from a natural habitat. Is that a way to treat another species?”
Tyke Elephant Outlaw premieres at the Sarasota Opera House on Saturday, April 18, at 12:15pm, then screens again at the Regal Hollywood 20 on Sunday, April 19, at 7:45pm.
(pictured: Tyke Elephant Outlaw producer-directors Susan Lambpert and Stefan Moore, and co-producer Meghan McMurchy)