His Tasks Are Unending, but Elephant Man Axel Gautier Never Forgets

updated 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

For Axel Gautier, keeping 21 aging showgirls happy is a seven-day-a-week, round-the-clock job. Not only is he responsible for such mundane necessities as room and board, he must dress his stars, bathe them and put them to bed. With that intimacy comes a measure of power. As the ladies' professional manager, it is he who anoints some for stardom and allows others to languish backstage. Naturally, the competition for his attention is fierce. "They get jealous," admits the stocky, blue-eyed Gautier, 41. "They're like a bunch of schoolgirls pulling hair, and at certain times of the year they get funny."

Does Gautier's blond American wife, Donna, have any difficulty coexisting with her husband's seraglio? Not a bit. After all, his leading lady, Siam, has gray leathery skin, smells like a barnyard and weighs in at a none-too-svelte 10,000 pounds. Axel, descended from six generations of Swedish circus performers, is maestro of 21 Asian females, the world's largest dancing-elephant troupe.

Billed as the circus' "master of pachydermic professorship," Gautier prods his animals through their paces with Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey's blue unit, appearing this week in Cleveland, Ohio. Bellowing commands in Swedish-accented English, he keeps his ponderous protégées hopping through two shows a day, six days a week, with an added performance on Saturdays. The elephants, stylishly clad in $5,000 custom-fitted sequined blankets, pirouette, dance little jigs and highlight their act with the spectacular "long mount," in which they create a daisy chain of mammoth proportions.

Born in Breslau, Germany (now Poland) in 1942, Gautier emigrated to the U.S. in 1953 when his mother and stepfather, both horse trainers, found work with a circus. Beginning as a circus hand, Gautier worked his way up to training elephants. For Gautier the circus is still a family affair. Wife Donna is a former aerialist who now rides his elephants decked out as a showgirl, while his sons, Michael, 19, and Kevin, 13, have their own baby-elephant act. Home is a two-room compartment, complete with kitchen and bathroom, aboard Ringling Bros.' mile-long, 42-car circus train.

Inevitably, though, Gautier's prima donnas demand most of his time. "It's full-time care," he says with a look of profound resignation. "I wash them, I brush them, I feed them, I water them. I leave around 11:30 p.m. when they're all taken care of, and I come back at 8 in the morning." His reward may be the cool caress of a wet trunk, a soft welcoming whinny (elephants trumpet only when frightened) or simply the peaceful spectacle of 21 elephants taking a snooze. "They're part of my family," he says. "I watch them to see that they all drink. If one doesn't, I watch her eat. If she doesn't do that, she might have a bellyache. I worry about them."

Each morning Gautier, his assistant, Suny Ridley, and 11 helpers muck out the elephants' tent. Then the animals are watered—each one quaffs about 35 gallons a day—and brushed to remove the rime of dead tissue that builds up on their inch-thick skin. Afterward, the elephants chow down on some 400 pounds of rolled oats enriched with molasses, vitamins and minerals. Backstage, before they perform, Gautier takes on the inelegant task of preventing his elephants from befouling the ring. Marching the whole herd around the tent single file, he indelicately commands, "Sheet!"

Although the Asian elephant is now an endangered species and is obtained with great difficulty, Gautier is not unduly concerned by the prospect of his act's obsolescence. Elephants often survive up to 70 years in captivity, and most of his troupe are still in their 30s. Gautier has no intention of switching to the larger and more dangerous African elephants, nor would he consider taking on males. "They're too aggressive," he explains. "Taking care of one male can be a 24-hour-a-day job." Moreover, bulls are susceptible to the glandular imbalance known as musth, which causes them to go berserk, stomping to death anything that gets in their way.

Gautier's tools as a trainer are his voice, apples and bananas as rewards, and his bull hook (a wooden pole with a curved steel tip), which he uses to nudge a slow animal. Above all, he prides himself on his patience. "To master the basics," he says, "it can take my elephants from three months to a year. They're like a bunch of first graders. Some learn fast, some learn slow." But elephants never forget, right? Gautier rolls his eyes in exasperation. "They do forget," he insists. "You teach them something, a couple of years later they need a refresher course!"

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