Lisa Leeman’s gentle documentary follows the odyssey of Flora, an African elephant who spent 16 years as the star attraction of a small traveling circus. However, circus owner David Balding realizes that Flora’s performing days are coming to a close – but where does a show biz elephant go for retirement?
Balding’s attempt to return Flora to Africa falls through, and her brief residency at the Miami Metro Zoo is marred by an incident where Flora injures a zookeeper. (Balding says it was an accident, though the facts in the cast suggest Flora’s behavior was not unintentional.) Balding is able to secure a new home for Flora at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, but Flora’s initial behavior is problematic and the sanctuary’s operator questions whether it would be a good idea if Balding is allowed to visit Flora.
“One Lucky Elephant” may not be the most appropriate title, since most of Flora’s life has not been very lucky: an orphaned survivor of an African elephant slaughter, she was separated upon arrival in America from her sister (who was sold to a Mexican circus, where she died). Although Balding never abused Flora, her isolation from other elephants and her years of learning circus tricks did not help in her emotional development. Yet Balding is hardly a villain – he seems like a genuinely nice guy who made well-intentioned mistakes – and the decision to bar him from visiting Flora at the sanctuary comes across as cruel to him and Flora.
The film might have benefited from more rigorous editing – it would have been a sharper production at 60 minutes rather than its current 84-minute length. However, Leeman – who spent a decade documenting the Flora-Balding tale – raises provocative concerns on the use of wildlife for entertainment purposes. “One Lucky Elephant” should open a much-needed debate on animal welfare and the treatment of exotic animals within a domestic setting.