By Garry Clifford
April 17, 1978 12:00 PM

‘Training an elephant is like playing God; the stampede is what you live in terror of’

How do you discipline a misbehaving elephant? Well, as trainer Bill “Buckles” Woodcock has found, not easily. “Elephants are just like people,” says Woodcock, who has 22 of the animals. “They vary in personality and disposition. Many are extremely intelligent. Some of my elephants despise each other and are as reliable as wild dogs.” Then he adds almost unnecessarily, “The thing you live in terror of is the stampede.”

But Woodcock, 43, has dealt with five-ton pachyderms all his life, and so have most of his large, handsome and complicated family. That includes wife Barbara, 43, their two adopted children, Shannon, 8, and Dalilah, 6. Then there is Ben Williams, 25, Barbara’s son by an earlier marriage, and Ben’s wife, Karen, 27, and her son Shane, 8, by a first marriage.

The family this season is providing the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus with its first American-trained elephant act in two decades. Playing New York’s Madison Square Garden is the fulfillment of a dream for Buckles Woodcock, though he has seen plenty of other big and little tops along the way. His father was a fabled elephant man and, as a little boy, Woodcock repeatedly ran away from the circus (“I was looking for kids to play with”). His nickname refers to straps his parents used to keep him harnessed.

Ultimately he buckled under and joined his father’s act. In 1959, while working at the Shrine Circus in Houston, Buckles met Barbara Williams. She was performing with estranged husband Rex Williams, the elephant trainer she married at 14. Barbara had learned to work with leopards and horses from her circus kin. “My parents knew Bill’s family from way back,” Barbara says. “We clicked at once. He took to fatherhood the first time he saw Ben,” who was then 6. “As soon as we had the marriage license,” Buckles recalls, “the three of us started practicing an act. It’s basically what we do today.” A member of the family from the beginning was big Anna May, now 32, named for actress Anna May Wong and inherited from Woodcock’s father. As senior elephant she keeps her lumbering colleagues in line by lashing them with her trunk. For the most part, Buckles’ herd has had only four years’ schooling. “It’s hard work,” he says, “but after six months an elephant knows his name. It’s sort of like playing God, creating a personality.”

During the one month each year when they are not touring, the Woodcocks reside in Ruskin, Fla. The youngsters, all seasoned troupers, study as they go, and, like young athletes, are benched if they fail to keep up scholastically. Ben set an example for the others. He was a member of the National Honor Society in high school and won a college scholarship. But he chose to stay with the act. “Elephants,” he explains, “spoil you for anything else—including people.”