October 23, 2018

3:00 pm

Elephant Man

There are many stories about men and women saving elephants. But here is a story about elephants saving a man.

As a teenager, Chris Gallucci was leading a wild lifestyle, frequently in trouble with the law. As noted on his website, he left home at age 12, rode around the United States on his motorcycle, went to jail at 16, and spent his teen years “raising hell — getting shot, stabbed, beaten-up and left for dead.”

And then Gallucci stumbled onto an opportunity that forever changed his life. As a teen in 1975, he got a job as a welder on a movie, building fences to contain various wild cats — such as lions, leopards, and tigers — and two African elephants.

The film, “Roar,” starred Tippi Hedren and her daughter, Melanie Griffith, and earned a reputation as the “most dangerous film ever made.”

As the trailer claimed, ”No animals were harmed during the making of 'Roar.' But 70 members of the cast and crew were."

The Hollywood Reporter noted that, among other examples, “Hedren was bitten on the back of the head by a lion. She also suffered fractures and skin grafts after being thrown by an elephant.” And Griffith, still just a teen “who quit the project for a time because she didn't want to come out of it with ‘half a face,’… returned to the set, only to be mauled and clawed by a lion.”

But for Gallucci, the experience was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Timbo and Kura, the two elephants from the film.

After the elephant trainer on the film quit, Gallucci moved into the role, and quickly took to the massive bull Timbo. As VOA News — which this month featured Gallucci in its “People in America” series (see video here) notes, the relationship “tamed the savage in Chris.”

The first thing Gallucci tried to do was win the animals’ trust. For starters, Timbo and Kura were on tight chains. Gallucci gradually extended the lengths of their chains, so that soon they were able to walk relatively freely on the set property. That eventually led to deep bonding between Gallucci and Timbo.

After filming wrapped for “Roar” — and the chaotic production took years to complete, as the film was not released until 1981 — Hedren converted this ranch north of Los Angeles into an animal park, which she named the “Shambala Preserve.” Shambala became the centerpiece of her Roar Foundation, which also took in other rescued cats.

The cable channel Animal Planet produced a documentary on Shambala, “Life with Big Cats,” which featured Gallucci and his elephant companions. The compelling nature of their relationship led to Gallucci and Timbo starring in their “own” documentary, “Elephant Man: Tusks and Tattoos.”

When Timbo and Kura died in 2009, Gallucci went to Africa to keep “a promise he had made to his elephant friends” and lay their “spirits to rest in their natural habitat.” The trip, he noted on his own website, allowed him “to understand them in a way he never could while they were in captivity.”