The approach of a circus that came to Jackson County recently brought back some memories for local man Tony Capps.
Although that Zerbini Family Circus didn’t have elephants, animals with which Capps had worked for several years, the thought of sawdust, snow cones, popcorn and peanuts were enough to turn his thoughts to his own multifaceted career under the big top.
The 67-year-old was a long-time elephant trainer and showman for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, and other big-name shows of his youth, and he held other jobs under the big top, as well.
That career began after he mustered out of the Army, where he’d served some time in Vietnam as a member of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
Capps acknowledges he came home with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that would make it somewhat difficult for him to work and play comfortably with others. He found his place, though.
He snagged his first circus job in the wardrobe department. He secured that work the night he went to the circus with his family after a dressing-down by his dad. He’d been bumming around at home since his military discharge, and his parents believed that a strong work ethic was a sign of good character and made for good psychological health in general.
They were worried about their son’s apparent lack of it, and his dad drew the line: He threatened to push him out of the nest if he didn’t get busy doing something to earn a living in the civilian world.
Capps had embraced that work ethic as a kid, himself, selling greeting cards door-to-door to earn a bike one summer, and as a teenager saved money in a special program that an area bank had established to teach young people the value of saving. To reward him for participating in that, his parents bought him a Stella guitar. He taught himself to play it when was 14.
He’d signed up for the Army at age 17, on his father’s signature, and was barely more than grown by the time he’d served his one tour and headed home to tiny Hosford, the place his folks called home at the time.
Although he’d been born in Tampa, he’d been shuttled from one foster home to another in his youngest years but at the age of five he realized he’d been with adults who loved him when he met a Methodist minister and his wife, a teacher. The Rev. Earl R. Capps and Roberta V. Capps became his forever parents.
When his folks were almost ready to walk out the door and take his younger siblings to the circus the night of that big confrontation they’d had, he asked to tag along. “Come on, let’s go,” his father was quick to say.
While the kids and his parents were in the bleachers enjoying the show that night in Panama City, he was walking around backstage looking for a job. The scrunch of sawdust underfoot had taken him back to a childhood fantasy sparked by the exciting images he’d seen flashing on the screen in a darkened movie theater.
As a youngster, he’d watched “The Greatest Show on Earth,” on the big screen of an area movie house and by the time the credits rolled, he’d decided that he wanted to work in the circus, and that he wanted to work with the elephants.
Wardrobe was fine though, for a start. But then he met world-renown elephant trainer Axel Gotaier, who took him under his wing. That gig lasted about two years, but Capps grew restless and took a break: He was feeling burnt out and he’d gotten his income tax refund, a windfall that gave him some breathing room.
After about a month’s vacation he went back to the circus, but this time worked concessions for a while. He sold snow cones and novelties for several years. The man who’d hired him took care of the business side, and Capps kept the cones coming. With an ice grinder constantly running, he filled order after order, and made up his own slogan to get the orders rolling in: “Freeze your teeth, take your tongue on a ride with the greatest snow on earth,” he’d pitch. “I was good at that, I made up a lot of those, but that was my favorite,” Capps recalled.
He was one of the top salesmen, with $1 million worth of snow cones in one year. That accomplishment earned him a plaque from Ringling Brothers, and a bonus.
Periodically, when the circus was working in an area that didn’t allow concessions to be sold, he worked with lions and elephants. He met famed lion master Gunther Gabriel Williams during one of those times, and Williams took a special liking to him. He taught Capps everything he could learn about the cats. “I feel a lot of gratitude for him,” Capps said. “He took his time to teach me. He was strict, but he was fair and he was one of the most famous lion tamers in the world.”
In 1992, Capps left concessions for good, and found his old buddy Axel from the elephant show. They worked together again, but, in 1993, they would say their last goodbyes. Gotaier would soon meet his fate. He’d taken over an elephant retirement farm for a circus and was killed when an older, aggressive elephant charged.
Capps grieved that loss, but in a few months joined a Kelly Miller three-ring circus in 1994. One of the animals he was put in charge of had a reputation as “a killer elephant,” although Capps says he never had any trouble with her — until the day she put him in a coma. And that, he stresses, was not her fault.
He and coworkers were pulling down poles that held up the tent they’d been working from in a performance, and the elephant was wearing an apparatus that may have limited her ability to see everything around her. The crew and the poles were crowding her and he was running her fast in order to keep the poles from striking and breaking her legs. She couldn’t grasp his commands, and accidentally pushed Capps into a pole and knocked him down. At that point, in her confusion, she started kicking and rolling him. That went on for a distance of about 50 feet. He was in a coma for three months.
Once he got out of the hospital, he moved in with friends in Tampa to recuperate. About six months in, he got homesick for Northwest Florida and went back to live with his mom and dad and eventually moved into his grandparents’ home. He lived there until 1996, and then went back to the Ringling circus. Three weeks in, he met the man that managed a facility where he trained elephants that had been bred for the circus.
He would eventually take over a large portion of that facility, essentially running it from 1996 to 1999, and then was transferred to a retirement facility to take care of elephants that were no longer in performance condition and would spend the rest of their lives there.
Other animals would become important to him there, as well. “We had dogs that were with us there,” Capps said. “They were our guardian angels, because they could distract a charging elephant,” he said. “I have always been a natural animal person. I had a dog, Tiger, that I loved very dearly, when I was a kid, before I went in the Army. Because my father was a minister, we moved around a lot as he was assigned to different churches. Sometimes we didn’t live in one place long enough for me to really make friends and in those times Tiger was just about my only companion. I’d ride out into the woods on my bike, and he was my best friend, always there with me.”
Capps ran the retirement center for elephants so well that it became a model operation cited by the USDA as an example of how all barns for exotic animals should be run.
Some of the retired elephants had tuberculosis, a common malady, and it was there that Capps contracted it himself. He was quarantined and treated in a hospital for quite some time, and is now well clear of that and in pretty good shape overall.
Around 2000, after that spell of serious illness, he joined Clyde Beattie Cole Brothers circus family and stayed with them until 2002, the year he left the circus life for good.
He spent a year in treatment for PTSD in Ohio after that, and then headed home again to Northwest Florida. By then, his parents had both died, but he settled in to the Marianna home they’d moved into after his father had retired from active pulpit ministry. He’d spent some time there on a winter break from one of his circus gigs in Miami, and liked it here.
Today, he has found his own kind of ministry, a fact he believes his dad would be proud of. He doesn’t preach, like his father did, but he runs sound for the biggest Methodist church in Marianna. He can also play six-string and pedal steel guitar, and can be pressed into service on those instruments. But he likes the solitary duty of the sound board. It keeps him connected in worship but also gives him the space he needs.
Looking back on his days with the circus and his many years with the elephants, Capps said he was proud of his work. As for the criticism he’s heard about using animals in the circus, he had this to say: “You’ve got bad apples in everything, every business, and that makes people look bad that aren’t. The bad stories you hear, the ones of them that are true, were coming out of fly-by-night operations. I’ve worked with a lot of people, and most of them cared a lot about their animals. I know I did. I worked hard for them and with them for many years and they were important to me,” Capps continued.
He said that work was sometimes arduous but critical.
“When I was working the center for the retired elephants, we rubbed down each and every pole in the place with sheepskin gloves, every day, to try and keep them healthy,” he said. “It was important to make that barn sparkle. And when I was working with elephants, I very rarely had to use the bull hook,” he said, explaining that the device is used to guild the movement of an elephant when necessary. “That’s basically your steering wheel when it’s needed—it’s a standard tool of the trade, and yes, some people have made it a tool of abuse. But those are the bad apples, those are not the standard. I went years and years without even picking one of those up.”
He spent most of his life with the circus from 1978 to 2002, and saw some difficult things in those years. One elephant, he’s sure, died of a broken heart. The elephant, named “Targar,” had a special relationship with a German shepherd that was part of one circus family, Capps explained. “She was very fond of the dog; he was retired, too, and she used to grab his collar and slowly pull him close with her trunk. She liked to have him around her. She died four months after he was run over and killed, and I’m convinced she died of a broken heart,” Capps said.
Despite the losses he’s known as a result of his life in the circus, his fondness for it remains. “The circus has always been something special,” he said. “In the Depression years, even the poorest could go. It was an escape from all the hard times, a place to forget about it for a few hours. In those times the circus was booming. For me, it was an exciting way of life with some new place to discover from week to week when I was traveling with it, and it suited me very well.”
These days, he’s enjoying life in retirement and counts his church friends as important figures in his life going forward. And animals still have a friend in him, too.