One Lucky Elephant

Susan Granger’s review of “One Lucky Elephant” (Sandbar Pictures)


    Ten years in the making, Lisa Leeman’s documentary tells the story of Flora the Circus Elephant.  Born in Africa, she was orphaned after poachers killed her mother. Adopted by circus producer David Balding, she became a beloved member of his family, eagerly learning tricks and entertaining children for many years at St. Louis’s Circus Flora, named in her honor.

    But then Flora, inexplicably, became distressed and aggressive, upsetting her kindly keeper and propelling him to try to find a pachyderm-friendly sanctuary as a retirement home for her. The Miami Metro Zoo welcomed her but then, because of an accident with a new handler, felt they could no longer keep her with their more socialized herd. That was followed by yet another unfortunate ‘incident’ when one of Flora’s keepers allows an elephant-enthusiast to ride her when Balding is out of town. Obviously agitated, Flora wraps her trunk around the woman and throws her at a nearby tree.

    “I was in shock,” the woman recalls, still in amazement. “I really loved her.”

    After originally being refused admittance to Carol Buckley’s highly publicized Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee because their herd consisted of Asian elephants, not African, and the behavior habits of that species were deemed quite different, Flora temporarily found a place there, only to be isolated once again when animal psychologists identify her erratic behavior as a personality disorder, tracing it back to the trauma of her original separation from her mother, subsequent capture and dominance training as part her captivity in the circus troupe. As a result of this diagnosis, Buckley became reluctant to allow Balding to visit Flora.

    Director Lisa Leeman subtly illustrates the dangers of anthropomorphizing wild animals, albeit lovingly.  Indeed, Balding’s wife Laura refers to her husband’s relationship with Flora as part daughter, part mistress. And you can learn more at

    On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “One Lucky Elephant” is a heart-tugging 7, demonstrating the perils of parenting, separating and letting go – for both parent and pet. But is Flora really lucky? I wonder.