December 15, 1986 12:00 PM

Warrant Officer Philip Coombes, Unit 106, Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, couldn’t believe his ears. Someone claiming to be from Gerry Cottle’s circus was on the phone, wondering, “Could you run a metal detector over an elephant for us?” Says Coombes, 35: “I thought it was a big wind-up [joke]. I really thought someone had downed one dram too many.”

But in nearby Sheffield, England, where the traveling circus had pitched its tent, ringmaster Martin Lacey was neither laughing nor quaffing. He was rather concerned about the health of Rani, 16, a 2½-ton Indian elephant who’d been eating less than half of her accustomed daily intake, which is usually 230 pounds of hay, cereal, apples and carrots. “She wasn’t showing any other symptoms,” says Lacey, “and the only thing I could think of was that she might have swallowed a discarded drinks can.”

As circus manager Chris Barltrop points out, “If she’d been a human, we could have taken her to the hospital for an X ray, but what do you do with an elephant? We racked our brains until we came up with the metal detector idea.” The army, adds Barltrop, “was very helpful to us. I think they viewed it as an exercise in initiative and an unusual test of their equipment.”

Warrant Officer Coombes arrived on the scene from his post at Somme Barracks and in what he calls “quite a straightforward job, really, went over her two or three times with the mine detector while she sat back on a stool.” The good news is that not a beep was heard on Coombes’ headset and that more conventional testing has since determined that Rani is suffering nothing more serious than the onset of her first heat. The bad news is that the only Indian bull elephant available for breeding in the North of England is booked solid until the end of 1989.

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