Send in the elephants
Some might see Andy Swan’s personal collection of elephants as signs of a pack rat. But as Swan explains it, “You collect what you love.”
Swan, who displays his collection in a Westfield Downtown Plaza Mall space, also puts in time as a professional circus clown—with the Swan Brothers Circus. Over the years, that’s meant a nomadic existence, traveling from one county fair to the next to find his treasures. Now, Swan, by his own estimation, has accumulated an impressive collection of elephant paraphernalia. Currently, he boasts nearly 15,000 different elephant-related pieces—a feat he plans to submit for consideration for inclusion in the Guinness World Records. Swan talks to SN&R about obsessively collecting knickknacks that pay tribute to a former clown partner, his late brother Mike.
Many people know you as the “Elephant Man”; how important is it to your identity?
My identity is more circus clown. My brother [Mike] and I had a two-man circus for 38 years. That was more my identity as a circus performer. But these elephants encouraged me to never give up my dream of someday owning an elephant. But I’m a realist, too, in the fact that you’ve got to be able to properly take care of [them].
How long have you been collecting elephants?
I started collecting them in about 1970 [when] I was with the DeWayne Bros. Circus. Bimbo the elephant was there. … I helped take care of him. We enjoyed each other from the moment we saw each other. That was when I started collecting. Three years later, my brother and I started up the Swan Brothers Circus, a two-man circus. The [Guinness goal] came to mind after my brother passed away a year-and-a-half ago.
Why is a circus more special with an elephant?
Any circus worth its salt always [wants] an elephant … [but] it’s kind of beyond my financial means now. Elephants are very social animals, and if you have an elephant, it’s best if you have two, because that way, they can socialize.
Favorite elephant celebrity?
Dumbo, because the story’s such a natural. The theme of Dumbo is: If you can believe you can do something, you can do it—and that’s always entranced me. … In the movie, Dumbo doesn’t think he can fly, and his friend, the mouse, said, “Hold this feather—and if you believe you can fly, you can fly.” There was a moment when he dropped the feather, and he was tumbling, and he says, “I don’t know how to fly,” and [the mouse says], “You can fly without it.”
When I lost my brother, I didn’t know if I could do the circus anymore. The first show I did without him, I saw a black feather on the ground, and I picked it [up] off the ground, and I thought, You can do it. And it worked out well. Now, every time I see a black feather, I pick it up.
Where do you get your elephants?
I get them from friends. Most are from garage sales and thrift stores. My brother and I [traveled] all over California. Generally, when we were in a different town, we would ask for the local thrift store … and [I’d] search for elephants. I like ones with character. I don’t like them necessarily brand-new.
How do you keep count of your elephants?
For the most part, my memory on elephants is pretty good, and if I ever do see a duplicate, I put it in a box in the back where all the duplicates are kept.
Is this an expensive hobby?
Going to the thrift stores [isn’t] very expensive. A lot of friends give them to me. [Once], somebody contacted me [about a senior citizen] who was terminally ill. She was in a senior-citizen home, and she had 300 elephants. I went over to look at them, and she was willing to sell them, [but] by the end of my visit, she’d found out I was a professional clown, and [asked] me to do two shows for her daughter’s preschool in exchange for the elephants. … That’s my favorite thing, bartering for them.
What are you going to do with your collection?
The ones taking up the most space are the stuffed elephants. … I have a couple of ideas for them. I want to put a lot of them into a trailer and tow them behind my little circus van and have it as a little sideshow to my circus and have some of the proceeds go to helping elephants in the wild, because they have habitat problems, poaching problems in Kenya; they have elephant orphanages and sanctuaries. I’d like some of my proceeds to help those elephants.
Do you worry about perceived political affiliations, since the elephant is associated with Republicans?
I’m not a Republican or Democrat. I just like the elephants.