SKOWHEGAN — Ellie is 39 years old, drinks 30 gallons of water each day and weighs 9,000 pounds.

That’s standard for an elephant. What’s unique about Ellie is she’s the only elephant in the world capable of standing with all four feet on a ball, while a woman sits gracefully on her back, claims one of her handlers.

Crowds of up to 200 people have been gathering for each elephant and tiger show put on daily by Franzen Performing Animals at the 193rd Skowhegan State Fair. The group performs twice each weekday and four times per day on the weekend.

“It was great. Awesome for the kids,” said Tom Rose, Palmyra, after one elephant show. “I couldn’t stand on that ball.”

Children and adults let out a collective “oh” when Ellie recently completed the ball-standing trick.

While Irene Franzen — wearing a leotard and ballet slippers — sat atop Ellie, the elephant positioned her two front feet on the ball and slowly brought one back foot on. She waited.

Then, without moving the ball an inch, she placed her remaining foot on the ball and balanced in place for more than 20 seconds.

It’s the concluding act of the performance, which spotlights the Asian elephant and two African elephants. During the 15-minute show they sit on metal stools, lift their trunks and legs in unison, follow each other in a circle, step on each other’s back, skip, pretend to sleep and salute the audience.

Announcer Justin Loomis reassured the audience at the beginning of the show, saying the trainer only uses positive reinforcement to teach the animals.

Asian elephants are endangered, he said, and “life is a lot rougher in the wild.” Life expectancy is longer for elephants in captivity, at an average of 65 to 70 years, Loomis said.

The group has experienced its share of problems. Animal trainer Brian Franzen lost his father, Wayne, when he was mauled to death by his tiger while performing in front of a crowd of children in Pennsylvania in 1997.

The Bengal tiger was apparently attracted by the owner’s glittery new costume, according to news reports.

“It’s the nature of the business,” Loomis said in an interview after a Skowhegan show.

The four Florida natives who run the performances know the dangers and do the work because they love it, he said. “You could die walking across the street.”

Loomis has worked for circuses since he was a boy, starting as a clown at age 7 and becoming an announcer at age 15. He said he was attracted to the work because he likes animals.

“They’re so intelligent,” he said. “They are magnificent animals.”

Four Bengal and Siberian tigers — including one white tiger — perform in the 10-minute tiger show. Just 3 percent of tigers are born white, Loomis tells the crowd at the beginning of the performance.

Each tiger eats 15 pounds of raw meat each day, he adds, and they regularly drink a mixture of milk and eggs, which is good for their coats.

The tigers sit on chairs, stride over metal poles, walk through a ring of fire and jump over metal hurdles. In the closing act, a tiger sits on a rotating mirror ball, licking his lips.

“He thinks he’s a movie star,” Loomis tells the crowd.

After the show, Bella Cornish, 6, of St. Albans, said tigers are one of her favorite animals and she liked the show.

Her mother, Brianna Brawn, said she enjoyed seeing the tigers, but she couldn’t help feeling sorry for them.

The group, licensed as Franzen Brothers Circus, has been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for various infractions of the Animal Welfare Act, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Those include failure to provide veterinary care, failure to meet animals’ nutritional requirements, failure to provide sanitary conditions and failure to maintain transport trailers. The group’s license has not been revoked, however. PETA lists 23 circuses with infractions.

Brian Franzen was convicted of animal cruelty and required to pay a fine in 1998 when several emaciated ponies were confiscated from a dirty trailer, according to PETA.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]


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