Elephants, Hippos and Bears, Oh My!

The Peru Circus Winter quarters were established by Ben Wallace in 1892. Elephants and bears all moved into buildings on this property that year. For the next 50 years, these buildings, newer buildings and properties would house as many as 40 elephants, Polar bears, Brown bears, Himalayan bears and Hippopotamuses from the River Nile. This was the home of the largest Circus Corporation in America where five major circus were repaired, contracted and routed around America each year.
The elephants walked from the winter quarters, three miles out of town to the downtown area of Peru each day for a healthy little exercise journey. The polar bears played in a pool of water. The colder, the better. The Hippopotamuses had their own pool inside the elephant barn where they could stay submerged at their leisure. The elephants enjoyed a leisurely bath in the adjacent Mississinewa River as the weather would allow.
The elephant barn was also the home to all of the display animals that did not perform that needed to be caged. The west wing of the barn had a long line of cages to house the many non-performing animals.
The center of the barn remained open as a training area to work with the elephants. This also gave the trainers a place to provide the pedicures the elephants needed to keep their feet in good condition as well as being able to physically tend to any ailments that might develop.
The circus menagerie was a travelling zoo. People across America had very little opportunity to see an animal other than on their farm. As the circus travelled from town to town and then moved by rails, more and more animals were carried to amaze the local people with wonders from around the world.
While many people may have seen a common black bear, to see a white polar bear that stood almost eleven feet tall on its hind legs was almost impossible to believe. Polar Bears are naturally climbing on things whether it was an ice flow, a downed tree or over a foreign object. The circus utilized all of these traits when they pushed a carousel full of other bears, climbed and slid down a slide or sat on their pedestal.
Many circus performances included multiple bear presentations. Maybe it was a cage full of polar bears, or a ring full on brown bears. Some acts even presented a combination of bears by using polar bears, European brown bears, Himalayan bears, Syrian Bears and native black bears.
The Hippopotamus can be a vicious animal to be around and then some are very tractable. Weighing nearly a ton when fully grown, they need to be in water to keep their skin in a pliable condition. They can stay under water, with just their eyes showing, yet they are not a very good swimmer. For a very large animal, they are very fast in their movements. Running in a short distance, they can achieve a speed of nearly 19 miles an hour. Being a herbivore, or plant eater, the hippopotamus can grow a canine tooth a foot long in length.
Being the third largest mammal on the face of the earth, This was quite an attraction to the American people who were only familiar with a wild boar or cow.
There are two different types of elephants, the Asian elephant and the African elephant. The Asian elephant has always been the most commonly used elephant in the circuses and zoos. The Asian or Indian elephants are easily identified by the smaller ears. The African elephants are divided into two subspecies – the Forest, or technically speaking, the Loxodonta Africana Cyclotis and the Savanna, or Loxadonta Africana. The Asian is known by it’s scientific name of Elephas Maximus.
The elephant is but one of three hundred and fifty two species of Proboscideans. In other words, they have a long nose or trunk. The elephant’s truck containsforty thousand tendons and muscles. This allows the elephant to literally pick up a dime. They feed themselves, water themselves, spray themselves, toss dirt and hay on their backs to keep the ticklish flies away, can lift a person with their trunk or push and pull as needed.
The elephant has a set of teeth that mash their forage into digestible eatables. Living 60 to 80 years in captivity, without a worry about comfort, food or shelter, the elephant will acquire six sets of teeth over their lifetime. Using their own trunk to work a loose tooth out, they do pass many of them through the bowels, when found, these teeth are almost the size of a human hand.
Most notably on any elephant are the tusks. A male’s tusks are always larger than a females. Males can achieve three and four feet of pure ivory. This becomes another tool for the elephant to use to move things and can also become a weapon as well. African elephants tend to grow tusks easier than the Asian elephants with the forest elephant’s tusk almost always being straight down. The tusk is actually another tooth of the elephant.
The foot is the main part of any elephant. Growing from twelve to fourteen inches across in an adult elephant, the elephant is actually walking on its toes. These are the white nails we see. There is a large cushion behind the toes that supports the massive weight of an elephant. This acts much like a rubber cushion of a tennis shoe. Despite the weight, an elephant can be graceful enough to walk without making a sound or even leaving a footprint.
Almost 100 years later, The Circus Hall of Fame now rests inside five of these original buildings, known as the American Circus Corporation winter quarters. The Polar bears swimming pool is still there, but it’s filled with dirt and grass. The Hippopotamuses pool is gone and replaced with a concrete floor for the mechanics shop. The elephant’s barn is still there, but the wall has been removed leaving the building open.
The rich history of the circus in Indiana is the highlight of every visitor’s trip to the Circus Hall of Fame. We are telling the stories of the all time circus greats, the little unsung worker’s, the management, the press agents, and the animals that everyone loved to see.
We are working on several important developments to repair and restore these great old barns. Indiana Landmarks has given us a matching funds grant to have a structural assessment done.
Having just finished the 17 days at the Indiana State fair and all of us as volunteers returning to our real jobs, this structural assessment will occur in October. This will provide many details, CAD drawings and a basic list of priorities to repair first. We are going to need to do a lot of work to keep these old buildings preserved. You can help us by going to our Go Fund Me page.
We are open on Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm and by special arrangements. Please call us at 800-771-0241 to make any special arrangements to come see part of Indiana’s great circus heritage.

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