Flora, an orphaned African elephant, was bought by David Balding when she was just a baby. For sixteen years, Balding ran a successful circus -- Circus Flora -- and he loved his elephant, Flora, as if she were his child.
Lisa Leeman’s documentary, shot over nine years, is a surprisingly moving film. The story starts at the circus, where Balding realizes that his star performer no longer enjoys her job -- and has begun to display aggressive tendencies. He realizes that what Flora needs is other elephants and begins an almost epic search to find his elephant a good home.
Balding first decides on an safari sanctuary in Botswana, but changes his mind at the last minute, realizing that if the actual travel to Africa is not successful his elephant may be euthanized on the journey. The highly desirable Pittsburgh Zoo has no room for Flora. An elephant sanctuary in Tennessee would be perfect but does not take in African elephants -- only Asian. The Miami Zoo does, in fact, offer Flora a home, but decides to send the elephant packing after she violently attacks a zoo keeper. And at last, in a remarkable reversal, the sanctuary in Tennessee decides to take in African elephants. Balding is ecstatic. Flora is loaded back into the freighter truck.
Flora is a gorgeous creature, truly gorgeous, and it is something to behold the affectionate relationship between the elephant and her keeper. The man and the elephant clearly love each other and are playful and demonstrative together. And yet, Flora weighs 8,000 pounds. She eats four hundred and fifty pounds of food a day, and gets angry without provocation. No matter what, David Balding is not enough.
Elephants are social creatures and Flora was raised a solitary elephant. One Lucky Elephant makes it exceedingly clear that even in the best of all possible circumstances, elephants to do not belong in the circus -- or captivity at all. The documentary never feels like a National Geographic program. Flora’s story is engrossing and sad. Scenes from the Tennesse sanctuary show the wondrous lengths that committed individuals will go to to love and care for elephants wrongly taken from their natural habitats. And yet, even there, in elephant heaven, the results are decidedly mixed, as an incarcerated Flora tears down metal fences before learning to adjust. Fortunately, she does.