A Family Circus

Most parents would agree there are times they feel like the ringleader of a circus – a wild, unruly circus. In fact, this comparison might not be fair – for the animals, that is.

Joe Frisco III, Lead Senior Elephant Handler for Ringling Bros., says that working with “the second smartest animals in the world” is a pleasure – and a job he’s very lucky to be able to do. (For the record, only great apes are considered smarter than elephants.)

Elephants have been part of Joe’s family for generations, beginning with his grandfather. “When my grandpa [Joe Senior] was 10, he ran away from home and joined the circus,” says Frisco. “He observed the elephant trainers, and worked his way up to become one of the best-known trainers in United States.”

Joe Senior had three sons — Joe’s father (Joe II) and his two uncles. They were each taught to work with different animals: horse, tiger and elephant. “But they all wanted to work with the elephants,” says Frisco.

While Frisco was always interested in the circus, he wanted to explore other options as well. He won a scholarship to play college football, but suffered a major injury during his high school’s all-star game. With a torn ACL and a football career on hold, Frisco decided to join family business, a decision that “was always a possibility, something I knew I wanted to do.”

Fast forward to today, and just like his father, uncles and grandfather, Frisco is an experienced elephant trainer. As the Lead Senior Elephant Handler for Ringling Bros., Frisco is responsible for “everything that has to do with elephants and their well-being.” He manages all aspects of the elephants’ training and care – a job that starts in infancy. “When the elephants are born, we watch what they like to do and how they naturally play. For example, if they like to lay down a lot, they’ll be trained to do that on command,” he says.

Frisco says that what spectators see in the shows is simply an extension of what the elephants do on their own, just “glammed up.” “Our elephants go through routines to be physically fit every day, and that’s why elephants with Ringling Bros. live really long lives – they are mentally stimulated and physically fit,” he says. He adds that the elephants receive lots of rewards during training, and learn almost solely by verbal cues.

“It is very important to surround our lovely girls with the most experienced and talented handlers, and make sure they are always taken care of,” says Frisco. While there are many misconceptions about how elephants are treated with the circus, Frisco says that the elephants with Ringling Bros. are always treated with the utmost care, and their well- being is top priority. “These elephants are part of my family.”

Frisco’s wife and five children are all actively involved in the circus as well. The kids help Frisco care for the elephants, and even participate in shows on occasion. “When [oldest son] Lucas was two and a half, he was part of a special performance with my grandfather and one of the elephants,” recalls Frisco. “That’s a really special memory.”

Being part of the circus is a 24/7 job, says Frisco, “so it’s important for my kids to have ‘normal’ childhood experiences, too.” His children attend school with other Ringling Bros. kids, and Frisco takes them to sports games and non-circus related events in the different cities they visit.

At the end of the day, Frisco says he’s lucky to be around his family so much and is grateful his kids are also growing up with the opportunity to be around elephants. “But,” he adds, “I’ll support anything they want to do – circus or not!”

Frisco and his pachyderms will be performing in Cincinnati at U.S. Bank Arena March 5-8 as part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey LEGENDS Tour. For more information, visit www.ringling.com.

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