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Elephant trainer always dreamed of working with circus stars

Circus’ elephant trainer says his job never has a dull moment



Ryan Henning’s family wasn’t upset when he ran off with the circus. In fact, they sort of expected it.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey elephant trainer grew up near Baraboo, Wis., where the Ringling brothers first founded their circus in 1884.

His grandfather started the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center at the Circus World Museum in Barbaoo, and his uncle ran the library for 18 years. His mother worked with llamas and also appeared in a magic show.

But Henning was the first member of the family to go on tour with the circus. After graduating high school in 2002, Henning went to Ringling’s ranch in Missouri where he began working with exotic animals.

He then joined the Big Apple Circus before coming back to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey about eight years ago.

At first, he was touring with the circus’s “camel liberty” act, where a bunch of animals perform intricate choreography without reigns. He longed to work with the circus’s main attraction, however.

“My dream was always elephants,” he said. “They’re just so magnificent. It’s not your average animal you would work with.

“I hate to say it but they’re like big puppy dogs.”

Elephants, Henning said, are very expressive. They flop their ears to show how they’re feeling, and will wrap their trunks around their trainers to show affection.

They’re also incredibly intelligent. Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s elephants respond to more than 50 verbal commands in German, French, Spanish, English and Hindi.

And apparently, the old adage is true.

“Once they learn someone, they very rarely forget,” he said.

So Henning started hanging out with the elephant trainers while they worked with the pachyderms. Soon, he worked his way into helping with their daily activities.

“You have to learn what they need and want and their personalities. The best way to learn is just by spending time there,” he said.

When the camel act was eventually discontinued, Ringling asked Henning to remain with the circus and start working with the elephants.

He is now assistant elephant manager and assistant animal superintendent, and is involved with all aspects of the elephants’ lives from training to care and feeding.

As assistant animal superintendent, Henning manages all the logistics of moving dozens of animals from city to city. That includes making sure there’s enough food and bedding, but also making sure the circus follows each state’s laws for exotic animals.

“We’re thinking months in advance,” he said.

Some states allow members of the public to come up and touch the elephants. Other states prohibit that and require the circus to set up a barrier between the animals and the audience. States also require different housing arrangements for animals, and different time frames.

“It’s just so much attention and so much commitment,” he said. “Our daily routine seems as though it’s never the same.”

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey have three touring circuses. Each one spends 45 weeks a year on the road, hitting about 45 cities. They average 10 shows a week, with about 900 performances in just one tour.

But even when the circus takes a break from touring, Henning and his colleagues accompany their animals to Ringling’s home base at the Florida State Fairgrounds. The facility is the largest sustainable herd of captive elephants in the world, with 48 in all.

“We’re still caring for the animals, we’re fixing the equipment, we’re training the animals, we’re exercising the animals,” he said. “There’s never a dull or boring moment in our lifestyle.

“That’s what makes it a joyful job. When I go on vacation, if I step away for a week or so, I get extremely bored.”

Henning said circus employees typically sign up for two year contracts, and while some go home after their first tour, he predicts he’ll spend the rest of his career with Ringling Bros.

“I’m not looking to change anything anytime soon,” he said.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “Built to Amaze” comes to the Charleston Civic Center today, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available at or by calling 1-800-745-3000.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or Follow him on Twitter at

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