Ringling Bros. Circus and their Living Unicorn – Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts

January 12, 2018

The idea of  a travelling circus has certainly evolved over the year. In 2015, perhaps the most famous circus in the world, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (we admit it’s a bit of a mouthful), agreed to stop using animals in their act and by 2017, they had gone out of business due to rising costs and falling ticket sales. But before all that, there was 146 years of enjoyment across the US, with a fascinating interlude in the early 1980s where the company announced that they had found a unicorn. We’ll delve into this fascinating fact today!

When you think of a unicorn, you probably think of a gorgeous white horse with a golden horn atop its head. What you might not be thinking about is a creature that’s under three foot tall and – aside from its singular horn – is quite clearly a goat. But this was of little consequence to the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1984, who proudly announced that the creature had wandered up to their circus in Houston in July of that year and promptly became a part of their performance. It’s a nice PR story but that doesn’t tell the whole truth and as one might expect, the public weren’t having any of it (though they still wanted to see the ‘unicorn’ all the same).

The animal was given the name Lancelot and was advertised as ‘Lancelot the Living Unicorn’. During shows, he would parade around the ring with a former dancer, Heather Harris, who had been assigned as his caretaker. Of course, there was more to the story than everybody had been told but Ringling Bros. refused to bow to journalists’ questions, even hiring a distinguished professor of radiology, Dr. Charles Reid, to perform an X-ray on Lancelot. “It is an integral part of this animal’s skull,” he noted, showing the radiograph for all to see.

 For contractual reasons, the previous owner of Lancelot wasn’t allowed to speak to the press. Although anyone and everyone could see that the creature was a goat, the President of the circus noted that people who said such a thing, “miss the magic.” So where had the animal come from? Since over 30 years have passed, we can reveal that the man behind the magic was Oberon Zell, a self-professed wizard who happened to become rather enamoured with The Last Unicorn, a book by fantasy novelist Peter S. Beagle. Zell wondered whether he could create one and discovered the work of Franklin Dove, a scientist who had discovered a way to fuse together the two horns of a goat in the 1930s.

The technique was exceptionally simple; the farmer needed to take a kid that was less than a week old and manoeuvre the ‘horns’ (in actuality, they resembled ‘buds’ that hadn’t yet sprouted) together whilst they were still part of the goat’s skin.  As they grew inwardly, the horns would become a singular horn and the result was a unicorn fit for a circus. Zell used to appear with a number of his beasts at fairs around the country, dressed in a sorcerer’s robe and holding a cane crafted from the finest wood. It was through these appearances that he ultimately came to the attention of the Ringling Bros.

 As one might expect, the Living Unicorn brought both good and bad publicity to the circus with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) expressing concern over the goat’s treatment and how it had only one horn. For their part, Ringling Bros. continued to note that biologically, there was no problem and that the unicorn was in good health and had a fine temperament. The ASPCA couldn’t disagree though they were still perturbed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture then got involved, sending along a vet to analyse the animal. As one might expect, they simply called Lancelot a goat and nothing more was made of the situation on their end, their speculation being that the grafting procedure that might have taken place wouldn’t have caused the goat any harm.

 After two years on the road, Lancelot was eventually removed from performing with Ringling Bros. preferring to regularly rotate attractions to ensure more ticket sales. Miss the unicorn when it’s town? You won’t be able to see it again! Whilst the circus never again used Lancelot or the idea of a Living Unicorn, they were vehemently opposed to any criticism of their act throughout the years. As their spokeswoman once noted, “It’s a unicorn. That’s what you call an animal with one horn.” A fair point, which begs the question why Ringling Bros. Circus never bothered to put a rhino on display under the same moniker.