The 5 O'CLOCK PERFORMANCE WAS ABOUT TO BEGIN under the candy-stripe big top of the Great American Circus in Palm Bay, Fla., about 20 miles south of Cape Canaveral. Inside the tent, one of the preshow attractions—Kelly, a 27-year-old female Indian elephant—was busy at work, placidly ferrying circus patrons on a ride around the center ring. In Kelly's swaying howdah were Kathy Lawler, 37, two of her four children—Lauren, 8, and C.J., 3—and three other kids. It was a ride none of them would forget. "About two thirds of the way around the ring, Kelly smashed into a cage wall," says Lawler. "And I thought, 'Well, she's a little testy today. I'll be glad when this ride is over.' Then she backed off and hit it again."

Lawler and the five children were on board a nine-foot-tall, 8,000-lb. runaway elephant. Suddenly seized by a frightening rage, the usually gentle Kelly seemed hell-bent on battering down the cage enclosing the center ring. All efforts to pacify the frenzied animal only made matters worse. "The trainer was right there, and he started to poke Kelly," Lawler recalls. "And the elephant picked the trainer up and threw him about 20 feet. That was for starters."

Despite an announcer's plea to "remain calm," some of the 2,000 to 2,500 spectators began screaming and running from the big top. "The trainer came back in, and he screamed to me, 'Throw the kids off,' " Lawler says. "So I got ready to throw C.J. off, and I turned to my right, and somebody from the circus looked at me and yelled, 'Don't throw those kids off! There's nowhere to throw them!' They would have been trampled."

An attempt by a trainer to head off Kelly with Irene, another Indian elephant, failed. "She just knocked this other elephant out of the way and charged out [of the tent]," Lawler says. But not before Lawler was able to hand her son off to the trainer atop Irene.

At this point Cpl. Blayne Doyle, 40, a veteran of the Balm Bay Police Department, rushed up to the elephant. "She was trying to tip over a '70 or '71 [Chevrolet] Monte Carlo," he says. "She was very mad. She was shaking her head, banging into this car." As Lawyer dangled one of the remaining four children by the hands, Doyle reached up to try to grab the child's feet. Kelly put a stop to that. "The elephant reached around with her trunk, grabbed hold of me and just threw me," Doyle says. "I landed on my hands and knees."

Doyle courageously raced back to the side of the elephant, hoping to reach the child again. "This time the elephant grabbed me with her trunk from behind and pushed me down underneath her," Doyle says. "She crossed her legs and started squeezing her front feet together. In my lifetime, I've been shot, I've been stabbed, I've wrecked police cars, police motorcycles, I've been in an airplane crash. but I've never been as scared as I was underneath that elephant."

Luckily someone grabbed Doyle's feet as a circus worker distracted Kelly with an elephant training hook. As the officer took cover behind a Dumpster, Kathy Lawler and the four kids managed to slip off the elephant's back—either jumping to the ground or onto Irene.

About 10 minutes had passed, but the drama was far from over. Kelly drove her head through the side of a large commercial van, badly gashing her trunk on the torn metal. "Blood started to run out," Doyle says, "so I knew she was injured."

But Kelly was beyond pain—and beyond reason. She smashed the van's windshield and ripped off a door. "The circus general manager told me to shoot the elephant," Doyle says. "He kept saying. 'Shoot her, she's going to hurt somebody. Shoot her.' " Doyle hastily called police headquarters on his radio and got permission to kill the elephant "if it was a life-threatening situation."

Doyle decided to wait. Despite his own rough treatment by Kelly, he hoped to find a way to save her life. He asked for a tranquilizer gun. but none was available. Then Kelly sealed her own fate. "She turned around and took off, running back toward the circus tent, which was still full of all these people," says Doyle. He ran alongside the elephant, firing his 9mm Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol at her head. Two other officers began firing as well, but all the bullets had little effect. Kelly lumbered back into the tent, causing pandemonium. "Every-body was screaming and running." Doyle says.

Though Doyle kept shooting, the elephant bolted out of the tent once again, this time running toward spectators who were fleeing the scene. "It was like the parting of the seas," Doyle says. "She ran through the center with us chasing her." She sped around the tent right into the guns of police who had rushed to Doyle's aid after hearing an officer-in-trouble radio call. In a volley of gunfire, Kelly finally went down.

But she did not die. Doyle emptied his pistol into the side of her head "so she didn't have to lay there and suffer." Still, Kelly lingered. "She threw her head up in the air and her trunk, trying to grope at the ground, trying to gel up." Doyle says, finally a police firearms instructor used a rifle with special ammunition to put Kelly out of her misery. "I went over behind the wall and cried after this happened," Doyle says. "We had to destroy one of God's most beautiful creatures."

Kelly was the incident's only serious casualty. No one knows why she went berserk. A circus elephant running amok is virtually unheard of outside of the movies. "This is terribly rare," says an executive with a major circus. "It's the first one I can recall."

Even so, the Florida Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission filed charges against Great American last week. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a formal investigation into whether the circus failed to control its animals and protect the public. (Just last month, under prodding from the federal agency. Great American forked over a $1,500 fine for nine offenses, among them, "failing to handle animals...so there is a minimal risk of harm in to the animals and the public.")

As for Kelly, she received no funeral—though she had been a faithful servant of the Great American Circus, plodding in endless circles for more than 10 years. Covered by a tarpaulin, she was hauled off to a local landfill.

JOE TREEN
DON SIDER in Florida

  • Contributors:
  • Don Sider.