LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi

When Kathleen Cremonesi set off on a back-packing tour of Europe in her twenties, she didn't dream she would end up joining a circus, riding elephants, swimming with sharks and falling for a handsome Italian elephant keeper. In the following interview, which originally appeared in My Weekly, she tells me about her big top love story.

"Riding an elephant in a circus was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. There was no rehearsal. My only instructions were, “Hold on and do what the other girls do!”

As we bounced through the velvet curtains into the spotlights, with all the trumpets and applause, it was hard to pay attention to what everyone else was doing. With pink beads popping from my costume and Raya the elephant’s sandpaper hide and quill-like hairs shredding my fishnets, it was all I could do not to fall off!

Luckily Raya knew her routine well. As she danced and twirled, it was like being on a roller-coaster that wasn’t on a track. I had no idea which way she was going or what she was going to do.

When Marilyn Monroe
joined the circus!
When the 15-minute act was over, I couldn’t feel my fingers, I couldn’t feel my thighs, and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face!

Running away with a circus wasn’t an ambition of mine when I set off on a back-packing tour of Europe in my early 20s. Purely by chance, I met up with some street performers in Amsterdam and we decided to busk our way down to Spain.

One day, the juggler saw a sign for a circus. He decided to join and asked me to go along to translate. As it turned out, he only stayed a couple of days. His circus dream ended when an elephant stomped on his clubs and crushed them.

I joined the show as a dancer. The reason was because I’d fallen in love with Stefano, the handsome young Italian who looked after the elephants.

I was attracted to him from the moment I first saw him in the ring. The spotlight was on the presenter and Stefano was in the background, walking beside the elephants as they performed, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

We were introduced after the show because he was the only one there who could speak English, and hit it off straight away.

It was the first time I’d been in love and I was taken with everything about him, from his looks to his great accent.

He seemed so daring with those enormous animals - in control and at the same time so compassionate and gentle with them. It was a very heady mix.

Stefano and I fell in love very quickly, although as we travelled through Spain and Italy our work in the circus left only stolen moments for us to be together.

When I wasn’t dancing or riding an elephant, my job was preparing dinner for the other animals, including a llama, buffalo, antelope and emus. My favourite was Baros the giraffe, who was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.

Jumbo - the most famous circus animal ever!
So famous they named a jet and hotdog
after him! (Really! Jumbo wasn't a
word before Jumbo!)
Among the colourful human characters were the tiger trainer who proudly showed his scars to everyone he met, and Moira Orfei, the famous and fearsome circus matriarch who would fine you if you hung your washing up in public - you had to hide it in the back of a lorry.

One day, the boss decided I should ride an ostrich around the ring while dressed as a leprechaun. Two men held the huge bird steady while I climbed on - and we were off! It was like riding a 300lb chicken, with me hanging on for dear life! Unfortunately they forgot to tell me how to dismount and as we charged out of the big top, I could only fall backwards into the dirt.

The scariest thing I did was swim twice daily in a tank with two sharks - one of them seven and a half feet long and the other nine. But at that time in my life I was chasing adventure and once I got over my initial fear it was exhilarating.

The most dangerous job in the circus was Stefano’s: working with the elephants. When you first meet them, they don’t know how you’re going to treat them, so they test you and make sure you know how powerful they are.

When Stefano first joined the circus, he was bending over a bale of hay and an elephant whacked her trunk across his back so hard he still has the injury.

Me and the Elephant!
Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
meets one of Britain's last circus elephants.
Another time, the head trainer looked away for ten seconds. An elephant grabbed Stefano and pulled him beneath her. He saw her foot above his head.

The trainer looked back, called the elephant’s name and she stopped. Another few seconds and she might have killed him. But it didn’t deter Stefano. He loved the elephants and worked hard until he won their respect and formed a very special relationship with them.

Elephants have a presence that’s humbling to be around. They look at you with such intelligence that it’s like they can see through any facade you put up.

I’ll always be grateful for my big top adventure. It was a coming of age experience in which I went from being very free-spirited and independent to learning how to be a part of something larger than myself. I also met the love of my life there.

Twenty years later, Stefano and I run a business repairing espresso machines. We live and work together 24 hours a day and I don’t think we’d have the great relationship we do if it hadn’t been for our circus days."

Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi is available from with a poportion of the proceeds going to the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.


  1. is this a pro circus elephant book as it says all proceeds go to the elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee . this sanctuary are very anti circus and zoos and they believe all elephants should be in wild or sanctuaries . Perhaps the authors are kniave

    1. Kathleen Cremonesi told me she is against the use of circus animals these days. However, her book provides a good description of life in the circus as she experienced it in her youth. It's warts and all but sounds fair. I wrote a review here: