Chris Gallucci and Timbo

"I live with an Elephant and an Elephant lives with me."

The Story of The Elephant Man

Chris in Palm SpringsSalvation and friendship come in many different forms, but few as strange and beautiful as that of Timbo the African bull elephant and Chris Gallucci, the Elephant Man. Their friendship spawns a lifetime’s vocation which endured for almost 30 years.

Chris on HarleyShow no weakness, stay cool, no matter what happens--this was the maxim that shaped the life of Christopher Onofrio Gallucci. He left his parents' house when he was 12.  At age 16 he paid his first visit to an adult jail and spent the next few years between jail sentences. Riding around the United States, growing up "way too fast," raising hell - getting shot, stabbed, beaten-up and left for dead - he lived through it all. It seemed unlikely anything would change until the fateful day in 1975 when he took a job as a welder on the set of Roar, a movie featuring Hollywood star Tippi Hedren and her daughter Melanie Griffith, as well as numerous lions, cougars, tigers, leopards . . . and two elephants.

Chris and TimboChris was immediately fascinated by Timbo, the gigantic bull elephant, and when the film's elephant trainer quit, he immediately applied for the job.  "Someone told me that the elephant was the largest animal that walked the earth," Chris says.  "I knew  I had to have a piece of that."   To win the pachyderm’s trust that first night, Chris chained himself up beside Timbo in his enclosure and threw away the key. That was the start of the 30 year long relationship; one which tamed the savage in Chris.

"My life before here was craziness," Chris recalls, "and even if you're afraid, you can't show it.  And so then, here [at Shambala], that fits like a glove.  My background probably helped me in the position that I'm in now.  I'm ready for anything."

Once the film was finished everyone moved on – apart from Tippi and Chris. She stayed for the Ranch, setting up the “Roar Foundation” to run the “Shambala Preserve” as a home for all the stars of Roar and later for other rescued animals. Chris stayed for Timbo, the first and – quite literally - heaviest responsibility he had ever taken in his life.

Tusks and TattoosChris and Timbo's story began to be told, in the Animal Planet cable network's documentary on Shambala, Life With Big Cats.  Guests who visited the Preserve saw how he interacted with Timbo and Kura.  Eventually, he and Timbo were the subject of their own documentary, The Elephant Man (aka Tusks and Tattoos), which has been shown worldwide.

Chris has also been a model, posing for, among other things, an edition of the Bible. He is portrayed here as various deckhands manning the ship in the Book of Jonah, and as the injured traveler tended to by the Good Samaritan.

Chris in the Bible Chris in Bible 2

Although Chris can barely write, he kept a detailed journal during the three decades on his exceptional life as an elephanbookt trainer.

In powerful, stimulating photos, the photographer Nomi Baumgartl captures the essence of elephant man Chris Gallucci’s life: the small world of the ranch, walks with Timbo on the edge of the Mojave Desert, Chris’ daily training regime with the huge bull – and his passion for polished knives, for gleaming Harleys and, time and time again, for the giant Timbo. Alongside these photos, extracts from Chris’ diary provide a window to his soul. They betray his quiet doubts, his concerns for Timbo – large and small – and reflect the joy, fulfillment and happiness that Chris finds with the elephant. This exceptional illustrated book inspires with a silent power which captures, in words and pictures, the intensive relationship and spiritual connection between animal and man – between Timbo and Chris.

Chris signs his bookFolllowing Timbo’s death in 2005, Chris has continued to work as Preserve Supervisor at the Shambala Preserve, later becoming Vice President in Charge of Operations. In October, 2009, Roar Foundation President Tippi Hedren relinquished her additional title of Executive Director, and honored Chris with that position.

 

In June, 2009, Chris kept a promise he had made to his elephant friends, journeying to Africa to lay Timbo and Kura’s spirits to rest in their natural habitat. The trip enabled him to understand them in a way he never could while they were in captivity.

February, 2010 saw Chris in Salzburg, Austria, on a lecture tour, giving inspirational speeches. His first stop was a church in an Austrian prison—a “tough crowd,” as Chris puts it. "Me, Chris Gallucci standing in a church, in a prison. It was too much like a dream and not a very good one." Next up was a school for young, aspiring artists. Chris enjoyed telling his story to the children as much as they were excited to hear it.

It was later that night, at the opening of an art gallery featuring photos of Chris and Timbo, that provided Chris' most moving memory. "A little girl, dressed up like she was going to the Oscars fought her way through the crowd, grabbed my hand and placed a note in it," he remenices. "She said her mother drove her here to the event to meet me. This little girl said she was having trouble dealing with a problem. She had lost someone very near and dear to her and after listening to my story, she said she knew now that she could deal with any problem that might come her way. Why? Because the magic is inside. She said thank you and walked away."

Chris' latest book, Elephant Man—The Journey is available at Blurb.com. He is putting the film footage shot on his African trip into a new documentary. It was due out late December, 2010, but has been delayed, and is still being revised. As Chris says, "This is the nature of the movie business!"

Chris makes one comment about a question that has arisen from recent publicity photos for the Shambala Preserve: Yes, he does wear ivory. But it's not what you think. "Don't judge a book by its cover. Humans have been doing this for a long time, and not just to me. Sometimes it is just the way it goes. Recently I have been frequently photographed, and it has been beneficial for the publicity of Shambala. These photographs have also caused people to ask why the Elephant Man wears ivory. I wear my ivory necklace and rings proudly despite this criticism. They do not know the real story. When my two elephants were alive, they would break and chip their tusks by digging holes to reach roots underground, ripping branches off of trees, and occasionally scuffling with one another. For me, it was important to find and gather these broken pieces of Timbo and Cora's ivory, and I am glad I did. When they died, it was essential to lay the two at rest fully intact, meaning I did NOT and would NOT cut these pieces of ivory off of the elephants out of respect and honor. A warrior is laid to rest with his sword and shield, and I did just that. Once they were gone, I made these two ivory rings and pendant to wear proudly."

Chris Gallucci, author, filmmaker, inspirational speaker, executive, biker and elephant trainer, lives in Acton, California.

All photos © 2014 Bill Dow
This page last updated 14 January 2014