Pierre Spenle


Elephant trainer loved circus job


Eagle Staff Writer

Special to The Eagle

Pierre Spenle spent 18 years training and performing with exotic animals.

Pierre Spenle loved his job, traveling from town to town amazing families and children with the tricks he had taught his loyal troop of pachyderms.

The gentle Frenchman with long, golden hair the color of a lion’s mane had a way with animals. For 18 years, the Grimes County resident devoted his life to training and performing with exotic animals, said the manager of the circus for which Spenle worked.

“Each animal had their own personality, and Pierre knew all of them,” said Larry Solheim of Tarzan Zerbini International Circus. “He liked to play with them and give them their favorite treats. They would swing their trunks at him, looking like they were kissing him. He was a phenomenal trainer.”

On Monday, Spenle, 40, had just finished securing elephants in a trailer outside a circus venue in Fort Wayne, Ind. He was trying to exit the trailer by swinging on one of the security bars when it gave way and he fell to the floor, the Associated Press reported (Eagle, Feb. 2).

Coroner Jon Brandenberger said Spenle was knocked unconscious in the trailer and then stomped to death by the elephants.

The animals, which each weigh about 7,000 pounds, probably didn’t see Spenle at their feet or were instinctively inspecting what they considered a foreign object on the ground, Brandenberger told the Associated Press.

“It was just a freak accident,” Solheim said. “They were doing what elephants do. It wasn’t like they were [thinking], ‘Let’s get Pierre.’ They respected him. They would’ve done anything for him.”

Spenle had worked with the Tarzan Zerbini Circus for 18 years training lions, tigers and elephants. The Plantersville man spent most of his time training and caring for the circus’ female Asian elephants, Roxie, Peggy, Shelly, Bunny, Jan and Marie, Solheim said.

The native of France got his start with animal training in Europe with the Swiss National Circus under the tutelage of Louis Knie. In 1987, Spenle moved from Europe to the United States to begin performing in circuses.

“He was the kindest trainer you’ll find,” Solheim said. “He babied those elephants. They were everything to him. He had devoted a lot of his life to them.”

It was fitting that Spenle fell in love with a woman who is just as devoted to the mammoth creatures, Solheim said.

Spenle’s wife, Karen Gibson, is the elephant supervisor at the Houston Zoo. She received a degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Texas A&M University in 1991 and has worked at the zoo for 13 years.

Solheim said the couple met while Spenle was working with another circus in Texas.

“Pierre was working on a show in the area and probably needed some routine vet testing or was looking for hay for the elephants,” Solheim said. “He called the zoo and that’s where they met, and it just went from there.”

The couple had been married a little over a year and had no children.

“They were both aware of the risks with working with animals,” Solheim said. “Every occupation has its risks.”

Gibson, who has a home and acreage in rural Plantersville, could not be reached for comment.

Not many people in Plantersville realized a circus animal trainer was in their midst. Spenle had lived there for just over a year with Gibson, and during much of that time he was on the road with his beloved animals.

“Karen is deeply saddened by Pierre’s tragic and untimely death and is being consoled by family members and co-workers,” Houston Zoo director Rick Barongi said in a statement issued Wednesday. “The staff, management and board members of the Houston Zoo share Karen’s loss and her grief.”

Funeral services for Spenle are set for 6 p.m. Saturday at Addison Smith Funeral Home in Willis.

• Laura Henley’s e-mail address is


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