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Crowd gathers for Elephant Brunch (with video)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Asian elephants aren't the most well-mannered of brunch guests.  

Rather than using knives and forks, they smash watermelons with their feet and shovel apples, carrots, lettuce and bananas into their mouths -- as much as their trunks could hold. Then there's that distinct elephant aroma.

But the guests of honor at the annual Ringing Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Elephant Brunch were crowd-pleasers nonetheless. Hundreds of people gathered on Clendenin Street outside the Charleston Town Center Thursday morning for a chance to see the large beasts up close.

The circus, in town through Sunday, has elephant brunch events in most cities where it travels.

"It's a big tradition here so we definitely want to keep it going," circus promoter Nikki Loescher said.

Besides being a fun show for humans, the elephant brunch serves to stimulate the elephants' minds, said senior elephant handler Joe Frisco III.

That's important, especially because the creatures are so intelligent, he said.

"That's why the elephants in Ringing Brothers and Barnum & Bailey live healthy lives," Frisco said.

The oldest of the all-female elephant team is 44-year-old Karen. The heaviest, Nicole, weighs nearly 9,000 pounds, Frisco said.

Despite the criticism from animal rights activists, Frisco said the animals are treated well in the circus. They travel in air-conditioned or heated cars with food and water available, he said.

Frisco, a third-generation elephant handler, said the animals have become like a part of his family.

"The best part [of the job] is waking up and being around the elephants," he said.

Frisco isn't the only one who enjoyed being around the elephants Wednesday morning.

Six-year-old Kelcee Radford came to the breakfast sporting elephants on both her shirt and her hair barrette. Elephants are one of her favorite animals, she said.

Kelcee and her mother, Summer Radford, have made the annual brunch a tradition.

"I've been every year since I was 1," said Radford, a kindergartner.

Shanna Carter of Winfield brought two of her sons -- 6-year-old Aidan and 1-year-old Ace -- to the elephant brunch.

"I just thought it'd be fun to see," Carter said. "And at this, you can get a lot closer [to the elephants]."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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