(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: In this documentary the elephant Flora became tired and bored with performing at Circus Flora. Owner and caregiver David Balding was faced with the question of finding a situation in which his beloved elephant would be happy for what could be forty years. This was much harder than keeping, caring for, and training the circus elephant the previous sixteen years. The animal cannot return to the wild and there is little provision in the United States keeping an elephant happy. In the end this documentary questions the entire institution of keeping wild animals in circuses and zoos. It is a statement on the relationship of humans and animals. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

When dealing with a person and trying to find what that person wants you have two good tools. You have what the person says and how he/she behaves. When dealing with an animal, even an intelligent and social animal like an elephant, there is no language communication and the animal's behavior is difficult to interpret because it crosses species lines. When Circus Flora's elephant Flora got to about age eighteen it was clear that she no longer was getting much pleasure from performing for audiences. If an elephant becomes unhappy that is a bad enough situation, but with ten thousand pounds of mass and that much strength the massive animal can become very dangerous. And a sufficiently disturbed elephant may give no human-detectable signs of anger one minute and can be a killer the next. Director and co-writer Lisa Leeman brings her documentary cameras to follow Flora's owner-and-trainer David Balding who is facing the most difficult decisions of his life trying to find where Flora will be happy. As an example, when Flora is placed in an elephant sanctuary the woman running it asked Balding not to visit Flora. Balding and his wife see what is happening is like having a daughter in boarding school who would be cheered to see her loved ones periodically. At the sanctuary the assumption is that Flora is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the horrific loss of her real mother and visits from the Baldings would bring up feelings of abandonment. There is no good way to ask the elephant.

The film covers Balding's nine-year search for a home where he hoped Flora would be happy--and the hope that such a place even exists. At every step Balding understands that in the end he might know if he has failed and Flora is unhappy, but he can never know if he has succeeded and given her peace of mind.

Balding goes from one plan to the next. Initially, he hopes to resettle Flora in Botswana. This may be the best of alternatives-- to return Flora to Africa and the wild. But the political sands shift making the Botswana plan impossible. And as the search goes on from 2000 to 2008 with Flora becoming more disturbed and frequently unhappier. Flora is placed in a zoo while David searches for a more permanent home, but then she attacks one of the zoo staff. In the end we can never know if Flora is happy. For all we know she might have preferred going back to the circus, though that option is not discussed.

The title of this film is both straightforward and ironic. One could hardly call "lucky" an elephant who saw her mother killed by humans and who was brought literally in chains to a part of the world very different from her home and is kept in imprisonment and loneliness for the rest of her life. As much pleasure as she had ever gotten from performing before people, the best that could be hoped for is to be able to interpret from her behavior that she was not always very unhappy in performing. But now at the end of that "career" it is giving her no pleasure. If Flora had really been "lucky" she and her mother would have lived in the wild to an old age. But perhaps was "lucky" in some senses. Humans can be very selfish and uncaring toward animals, but at least Flora had David Balding who loved her and sincerely tried to do what Flora would want, even if that was only choosing the best of some bad alternatives. To the extent Flora was lucky, it was having the devotion of Balding. Flora does seem to end in stable circumstances, but her fate is questionable as giving a happy ending to the film. One of the members of the Circus Flora suggests that wild animals should be left in the wild. The statement is given little emphasis, but in the end that is probably the message of the film. The film lists five countries that have banned uisng wild animals in circuses and the film makes a subtle but powerful statement that that really is the best policy.

ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT is a true and very real account of a man-animal relationship. It is the type of film that might well return to the viewer every time the viewer sees animals in a circus or zoo. I rate ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper