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BABY LOVE : Romeo and Juliette Were Born to Be in the Circus, Which Right Now Simply Requires Them to Be Elephants

<i> Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

The folks at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are showing uncharacteristic restraint--make that, an Amazing Deficit of Hyperbolic Hoopla--in marketing this year’s show, which opens today and runs through Aug. 14 at the Pond of Anaheim.

Promoters are billing headliners Romeo and Juliette, the show’s 20-month-old Asian elephants, as “the babies all America wants to see.” Not “thrill to,” not “idolize,” not even “admire.” Just “see.”

Indeed, at a recent show in Long Beach, the pair’s performance probably didn’t raise anybody’s heart rate. Heralded by a gaudy, pre-intermission revue and attended by their trainers and mothers, the twosome briefly intertwined trunks and later stood on one foot, staring curiously at the audience while ringmaster Jim Ragona literally sang their praises.

To be sure, there are showier animal acts in this 2 1/2-hour show, including Graham Thomas Chipperfield’s teeterboard stunts with three elephants and the Boulibekov Riders’ daring acrobatics aboard galloping horses. But as R & J’s primary trainer, Patricia Zerbini, stressed, it’s what these 1,500-pound babies are , not what they do , that’s so impressive.

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Born just 11 days apart, Romeo and Juliette are the first Asian elephants conceived and delivered on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Elephant Farm, a 20-acre research and breeding facility operated by the company outside of Gainesville, Fla. They were sired by a common father.

Zerbini, 30, who managed the facility with husband Theodore Svertesky until she went on the road with the babies this year, said the animals represent a milestone in the circus’s efforts to replenish the dwindling Asian elephant population in the United States and, hopefully, abroad.

“Preservation of the species is the main goal of the farm,” said Zerbini in a phone interview between shows at the L.A. Sports Arena. In addition to dwindling habitat, ivory-poaching continues to shrink the elephant population in Asia and Africa.

“A male elephant typically won’t start breeding successfully until age 30 or 35,” she explained. “That’s also when they have the heaviest ivory, so that’s when they get poached off.”

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The farm, established in 1985, is participating in an artificial insemination program that Zerbini said will soon be introduced on game preserves in Asia. Typical gestation for an Asian elephant is 22 months, and it can take several tries to achieve a fruitful pregnancy.

Romeo and Juliette’s birth mothers--Zerbini said she considers herself their “surrogate mom"--are Icky and Alana, who are in their late teens and two of the younger elephants of Ringling Bros. 60-member herd. (Most Ringling Bros.’ performing elephants in the two touring companies are in their 30s and 40s; the 7.3-ton King Tusk, “The Largest Land Mammal Traveling the Face of the World Today” say the circus promotions, is 49). Former circus performers Icky and Alana will travel with the babies until they wean them at about the age of 2, then will be returned to the farm, where they join a small breeding herd that the trainer hopes will ultimately produce one or two babies per year.

Depending on their temperaments and the success of their training, Romeo and Juliette will probably perform with the show for about 15 years before settling down as breeders on the farm.

While on the road, the babies and their mothers travel apart from the other elephant performers in a customized 100-foot rail car. While their moms consume a typical daily menu of three to five bales of hay, 25 pounds each of sweet feed, Elephant Chow (a mineral and vitamin supplement), fruits and vegetables and a half dozen or so loaves of bread, the babies have just started to try solid food. They’ve already developed a sweet tooth, though. Their favorite snack: marshmallows--by the bagful, please.

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“Elephants are kind of like kids; they like that special treat once in a while,” explained Zerbini, laughing as she recalled how the babies let their tastes be known.

“Early on, they didn’t have teeth, so we were trying to come up with a treat for them that they didn’t have to chew. One day, we were having a family barbecue and we had these marshmallows. My kids gave them one, and they just slurped them down. Now, some of the bears and even a lion in the show like them.”

* What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

* When: Today, Aug. 4, through Aug. 14. (See box on Page 11 for performance times.)

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* Where: The Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim.

* Whereabouts: From the Santa Ana (5) and Orange (57) freeways, exit at Ball Road and drive east. Turn right on Phoenix Club Drive.

* Wherewithal: Tickets are $9.50 to $14.50. Parking is $6 per car.

* Where to call: (714) 704-2500 or (714) 740-2000 (TicketMaster).

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Circus Schedule

Performance schedule for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show in Anaheim:

Today: 7:30 p.m.

Friday: 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

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Saturday: 11 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m.

Sunday: 2 and 6 p.m.

Monday: No performance

Tuesday: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.

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Wednesday: 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 11: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 12: 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 13: 11:30 a.m., 3:30 and 8 p.m.

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Aug. 14: 1 and 5:30 p.m.

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