It’s often the highest expression of our love for the creatures in our lives that we assign human emotions and motivations to their actions, wanting to believe they’re just like us. But be it fluffy Shih Tzu or three-ton pachyderm, an animal is still an animal, no matter how much we will it otherwise. One Lucky Elephant is a poignant documentary whose simple premise masks a substantial emotional wallop, examining both the genuine sense of connection within animals, and the unfair presumption of that desire.
Circus Flora is a small St. Louis attraction named for the African elephant who for years served as its centerpiece. Adopted by circus producer David Balding after poachers killed her mother, the baby Flora was raised as a kind of surrogate child. But in her teens and full-grown, Flora has reached a size where she could easily accidentally hurt someone, and has lost any apparent enjoyment in show business, becoming moodier and no longer reliably responding to commands. Balding starts searching for a new home for her, realizing “she needed to be an elephant, not a dog or a daughter.”
Finding a suitable home for an elephant is no easy task, and Balding’s search is complicated by his unspoken inherent belief that no one can care for Flora as well as he has, and the fact that Flora isn’t socialized to live with others of her kind. Left temporarily at a zoo, she attacks a trainer. Placed at last in what seems to be the best possible shelter, she triggers an argument between Balding and her new caregiver, who believes the kindest thing he can do for the elephant is leave her alone to adjust to her new life.
One Lucky Elephant would make an affecting pairing with James Marsh’s upcoming Project Nim, another film about an animal treated like a human until its essential wildness made that impossible. But unlike the latter doc, One Lucky Elephant isn’t about neglect so much as it’s about the limits of love. Filmmaker Lisa Leeman, who spent nine years on this project, unpeels layers of Flora’s history, complicating our understanding of this particular relationship between man and beast. But the film never casts doubts on the sincerity of Balding’s deep affection for Flora, even as Leeman’s sympathies shift toward believing the ideal solution to this problem would be for elephants to not be kept in captivity or used for performing at all.