There's more to the fair than elephant ears

There's more to the fair than elephant ears
Molly Greer, left, Olivia Christner and Kate Christner smiled as they rode elephants at the Indiana State Fair on August 1. Elephant rides are available for $7 per person the entire duration of the fair. (Samantha Blankenship/BSU Journalism at the Fair)
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Their names are Bunny and Libby.

They were surrounded Friday by a swarm of children as the massive creatures fanned their faces with their flappy, speckled ears. These 8,000-pound, 40-year-old Asian elephants are working the entirety of the Indiana State Fair.

Their cracked, gray skin was covered with long black hairs, similar in texture to the bristles of a toothbrush. Their massive trunks swept down and up again to push bundles of hay into their mouths. Occasionally one vocalized itself in a startling shriek that captured the attention of anyone within view of these gentle giants.

“It’s unique! It’s unusual! Once in a lifetime!” shouted a worker from the top of a metal staircase as he called fairgoers to try out the ride of a lifetime.

“Hop on up, buddy,” the man said to a grinning blond boy as he lifted him on top of Bunny. The boy smiled and gripped the red makeshift railing as the elephant began to walk at a slow and steady, nonchalant pace.

“It’s like foraging in the wild,” said Linda vonUhl, a board member of the Circus Hall of Fame. “They’re eating and moving, eating and moving.”

The elephants’ trainers walked with them in circles and gently guided them with a rod as well as a few commands to move up or turn around. Sometimes the elephants left before some ticket-buyers could make their way to the top of the staircase to climb on, and maneuvering in a small area required trainer guidance.

“I grew up in the circus, so it’s my way of life,” said elephant trainer Habib Omar, a fifth-generation member of the circus.

Children couldn’t contain their smiles as they rode around in a few circles atop these massive creatures—and even more excitement broke through when stepping off, legs wobbly but hearts racing.

“That’s the best part, when they get off and I get to see their smile,” vonUhl said.

Two adults laughed and took a selfie as they swayed with each step the elephant took. A boy in a white T-shirt and basketball shorts proclaimed, “That was so fun!” as he approached his family. Behind the boy trailed an elderly man who stepped off the metal staircase grinning from ear-to-ear.

“And look at the adults—they’re kids again,” vonUhl said.

Alex Kincaid is a writer for BSU Journalism at the Fair, a Ball State University immersive-learning project placing 25 student journalists at the heart of the Midway to tell the weird and wonderful stories of the 2014 Indiana State Fair.