Updated August 11, 2023 - 12:46 pm
In August 1995, workers behind the Luxor spent hours trying to get Stoney, a 22-year-old performing elephant, on his feet to transfer him by crane to a trailer.
That trailer was supposed to take him to a barn in Arkansas to recover from a crippling leg injury suffered nearly a year earlier when the hamstring in his right rear leg ripped apart.
The injury happened as his longtime trainer, James Michael LaTorres, had him rehearse the animal’s single rear leg stand for the “Winds of the Gods” show at the Luxor’s Pharaoh’s Theater.
A crew of crane operators had to wait for the stricken Stoney to stand on his own before he could be lifted onto the trailer. But he could not raise his hind legs, according to the 2013 book “Elephants Among Us: Two Performing Elephants in 20th Century America,” by M. Jaynes.
“The elephant was lying on the ground sort of groaning in pain,” a crane technician quoted in the book said. “Then the trainer walked through the door and that elephant started chirping and calling to him; then he reached out his trunk to the guy like he wanted to touch him. The guy said, ‘Cut it out, Stoney,’ and sort of pushed the trunk away. Then the elephant kind of sighed and then he died.”
The story of Stoney is one of the most infamous, and well-documented, examples of animal neglect. His late owner LaTorres did not renew his federal license, and in 1997 was cited by the USDA for 15 willful violations of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act in his treatment of the elephant he had owned for almost its entire life.
Stoney was an Asian elephant born a “captive animal” — never living in the wild — in a zoo in Portland, Oregon, in June 1973, based on Jaynes’ book. When he was 2, he was sold to an animal exchange that sent him to a children’s zoo and in turn bought by “Mike” LaTorres and his wife, Sally, who used the animal as an attraction at many circuses and events in the south and midwestern United States and in Canada into the 1990s.
It was apparent, according to Jaynes, that Stoney liked giving rides to children and appearing in Renaissance fairs where people petted him as he walked around. He did not seem to like the hind leg standing trick that Mike LaTorres trained him to perform. In fact, Mike and Sally were informed that Stoney’s father had bone problems and the hind leg act was not a good idea, according to Jaynes.
Las Vegas performance leads to injury
LaTorres and Stoney reached Las Vegas in March 1994, a year after the Luxor opened on the Strip, replacing another elephant act in the hotel’s “Winds of the Gods” stage extravaganza.
Almost a year and many shows later, Stoney was doing his hind leg stands as often as two shows a night.
By August, 1995, Circus Circus Enterprises Inc., the Luxor’s parent firm, had spent about $100,000 caring for Stoney. Still, a veterinarian said Stoney’s diet — LaTorres’ responsibility — was lacking fresh vegetables and he was “grossly underweight.”
On Aug. 27, 1995, with a crane nearby to help lift him out, LaTorres and other workers tried to get Stoney to stand up, but disaster struck when he fell and injured his right hind leg, leaving him unable to stand. His cries of pain could be heard outside the open door to the warehouse.
The USDA required that in order for him to leave and get into the trailer, he had to get up and stand by himself first. But that did not happen.
Animal rights protesters from the group PAWS were outside the Luxor warehouse videotaping and recording his groans.
The warehouse he was in had been approved by the USDA and was climate controlled, but had no windows. He was on painkillers for myriad injuries and complications, including malnutrition, skin conditions, atrophied leg muscles and ulcers on the pads of his feet.
After he died, no necropsy was conducted to discover the cause.
Sarah Ralston, spokesperson for Circus Circus Enterprises, then the owner of the Luxor, said days later in a letter to the editor in the Las Vegas Sun that the hotel did not have the responsibility for the daily care of Stoney.
“LaTorres was the only person who had control of and the legal right to decide Stoney’s future,” Ralston wrote. “For better or worse, Circus simply had no control over the elephant’s destiny.”
“His death was the source of great sadness for all of us at Circus Circus Enterprises,” she concluded.
Linda Faso, a veteran Las Vegas animal rights activist who protested outside Stoney’s warehouse in 1994, said recently that she tried to get better food and medical treatment for him over a nine-month period but that he had deteriorated after his leg injuries.
The Luxor provided assistance to Stoney but should have done more for his well-being — such as giving him healthy fruits and vegetables to eat instead of only hay — because he was injured at the hotel, Faso said.
“He was literally rotting away and that could have been avoided,” she said. “He was too far gone, was not going to live much longer. He suffered horribly.”
His flat gravestone has an engraved drawing of an elephant with the message, “In Loving Memory of Stoney, A Gentle Giant.”
LaTorres, Jaynes wrote, likely overwhelmed from the ordeal, died just a few years after Stoney.
LaTorres “wasn’t a bad guy,” Faso said. “He was reasonable and decent,” but “once the accident happened, (Stoney) became a broken down piece of machinery. He was no longer good for Mike.”
Stoney’s death drew attention to the plight of “wild animals being forced to perform” she said.
Fewer patrons now want to buy tickets to circus-type shows after viewing videos on how poorly animals can be treated, and the hotels and other businesses know that, she said.
“People are seeing the trainings and the beatings,” she said. “It’s all about the public.”
World Elephant Day
On Aug. 12, 2012, conservationists launched World Elephant Day to bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants.
“The escalation of poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and mistreatment in captivity are just some of the threats to both African and Asian elephants,” the World Elephant Day website states.