Under Review: ‘One Lucky Elephant’


“One Lucky Elephant” starts with Flora and her owner of 16 years, David Balding, walking down a sidewalk in St. Louis. Flora, an elephant, holds onto David’s hand with her trunk. Balding remarks, “I got Flora because I wanted an elephant for my circus. We’re all one family and she’s part of it.”

Balding adopted Flora as an orphan from Africa. Her mother had been killed and Flora had been traumatized. Balding, who had no children, cared for her like a family member. But as time when on, Balding saw that “she needed to be an elephant, not a dog or a daughter.” She also needed to eat 450 pounds of food a day.

By the time Flora was a teenager, Balding was an aging senior. He began to think about Flora’s future. She would likely outlive him, so he realized that he would have to retire her. While he began his research the resident composer for Balding’s circus, Miriam Cutler, contacted film-maker friends, including eventual producers of the film, Cristina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzheim with the idea to do a documentary on Flora’s transition.

Balding’s first idea was to have Flora returned to Africa, possibly a place in Botswana where she could join an elephant family giving rides to tourists. When this plan didn’t work out, the Miami Metro Zoo, founded by Colissimo’s father, offered a temporary placement.

The problem for Flora is that she hadn’t grown up with other elephants. Her peers and colleagues were humans. However, while Balding and her trainers were wondering if she would fit in at the zoo, there is a parallel story going on about her relationship with Balding and what happens when he leaves her.

This documentary covers Flora’s life for a period of about 10 years. There is early footage of her being trained in Balding’s circus at two years of age and tense moments when she is introduced to other elephants as a teenager. Throughout her life, she has not been the perfect pet, so as the film winds on surprise information is revealed.

Most importantly, while many of us have thought that bringing up a wild animal would be fun — and, of course, might also make us feel special — there are a few problems.

Like Lucy the Chimpanzee, famous for being raised by a human family, re-integration into an animal’s natural society can be traumatizing. Lucy was taught to communicate with sign language and wore clothes. She was treated like a human child. When set in a cage with other chimps, she had the same reaction a human might have – sheer terror. When finally left by her parents, she could not recover.

This film is the story of what happens to Flora. It is also a love story. What happens to these massive social beasts who have spent a lifetime without their instinctive drive to roam, forage and mate? What happens when the only being they love is human?

“One Lucky Elephant” also features Carol Buckley, well-known author and elephant friend, who adopted a baby elephant who was living in a trailer at her neighborhood tire store. Her remarkable story is absolutely inspirational.

It’s when her story and Balding’s converge that this documentary not only branches out in directions the filmmakers never expected, but becomes a tremendously insightful experience for the viewer.

Humans of all ages will love this film. It has the excitement of bellowing elephants and the tenderness of the owner who sits down grasping onto Flora’s trunk, knowing they have to part.

“One Lucky Elephant”

Opens at Film Forum in NYC on Wednesday, June 8

and at Laemmle Theaters in LA on Friday, June 24

Film Credits

Director: Lisa Leeman
Writer: Cristina Colissimo and Lisa Leeman
Producers: Cristina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzheim
Executive Producers: Greg Little and Elizabeth Zox Friedman
Co-Producer: Miriam Cutler
Cinematography: Sandra Chandler
Editor: Kate Amend and Tchavdar Georgiev
Original Score: Miriam Cutler
Runtime: 84 minutes
Year: 2010
Genre: Documentary
Age: 10 and older

ONE LUCKY ELEPHANT is presented with the support of lead sponsor The Humane Society of the United States, and is the recipient of its ACE (Animal Content in Entertainment) Award Grant.

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