“I’ve shot 63 men and 630 elephants, and I regret the elephants more.”
The Man Who Loved Elephants
In summer 1984, Arthur Jones—renowned inventor and owner of Nautilus weight-training equipment—retrofitted a Boeing 707 from his own fleet, rescued 63 orphaned baby elephants slated for slaughter by the Zimbabwean government, and flew them to his 550-acre ranch in Lake Helen, Florida. No stranger to Africa’s wilds, Jones previously ran a small, private airline, and a profitable animal import/export business. As an outgrowth of that, he created more than 300 television episodes for Bold Journey, Wild Cargo, Call of the Wild, and Professional Hunter starting in the mid-1950s. Jones also kept and raised elephants and other animals on his sprawling ranch and private wildlife preserve, Jumbolair. If the word existed, he’d begrudgingly have accepted being called an elephantarian.
At 59, Jones was on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Counting the 63 rescued babies, Jones owned 98 African elephants—more than all the zoos in North America. He also owned 4,000 crocodilians, 500 snakes, three white rhinos, and a gorilla that Terri trained for publicity photos. Widely regarded as an eccentric, impulsive genius—called “the amalgam of Howard Hughes, Vince Lombardi and Indiana Jones” and “the P.T. Barnum of exercise”—I thought it might be mutually beneficial if Jones and I got to know each other.
A maverick businessman not known for altruism, Jones tried to justify for the media his rescue of “63 confused and unhappy baby elephants.” The need for arable land was squeezing elephants onto smaller parcels, causing them to eat themselves out of their own habitat, Jones explained. In response, the Zimbabwean government engaged in a systematic “cull,” not to harvest their ivory but to reclaim the land and prevent elephants from becoming a public danger. “I believe the African elephant is going to be extinct by the end of the century. I love elephants. I simply could not live with myself if I idly stood by and watched the African elephant become extinct.” His stated intent for the rescue: “We’re going to give them an opportunity to survive and to build a self-sustaining herd of African elephants in this country.”
Jones’s travel companion for the 1984 rescue mission was wife #5, Terri, whom he’d met as a 15-year-old beauty pageant contestant and married when she was 18. Thus far, all five wives had been between 16 and 20 years old when he married them. Under Jones’s tutelage, Terri too was on her way to becoming an accomplished pilot. She was already the Nautilus spokesmodel. After the elephant rescue, Terri and Arthur appeared together on televised news and talk shows. On Johnny Carson, Jones said he used to work long hours, but had cut back to 17 or 18 hours a day. “I don’t know what I want,” he told Carson.
After watching the 1984 20-20 segment, “The Flying Elephants,” I called Jones to ask for money. I’d directed a national study of the physical fitness and exercise habits of American youth that had been released in October. The media was enjoying a sustained and pervasive feeding frenzy. I’d been interviewed on CNN right after “the brain guy.” My favorite interview was with CBS radio because while Mom was making breakfast 185 miles away she unexpectedly heard my voice. A friend who was showering found himself asking, “Why am I hearing Jim’s voice?” I hoped to persuade Jones that his funding a follow-on study of younger kids made good business sense. Based on his reputation, I thought he might be impulsively crazy enough to underwrite the study and become my partner in crime.
I got Jones’s home telephone number from the White Pages. In 1985, lots of wealthy, notorious characters like Jones still had listed phone numbers. When I called, Terri answered, sounding out of breath. I imagined Terri feverishly working out on a Nautilus abdominal machine. I was her break.
“Hi, is Arthur there?” I asked, nonchalantly, as if Jones might be expecting my call.
“Oh, Arthur’s at the office,” Terri answered, and gave me the number without even asking who I was.
“Hello. This is Arthur,” he answered his phone after one ring.
Stunned, I couldn’t articulate a single syllable. I have no idea whether I breathed loudly or gave other tangible evidence there might be a warm body at the other end of the line.
“Usually, when I say hello to someone they say hello back,” Jones said, with the comic, intimidating gruffness that was his trademark.
“Sorry, there was static at my end. Let me introduce myself. My name is Jim Ross. I directed the latest national study of the fitness and exercise habits of American kids. You may have seen something about that on the news.”
“What is it you have to sell? If she’s 16, blond, and virginal, I’m interested,” he said.
“I’m looking for a partner to fund a national study of young children,” I said.
“Look, I’m interested in younger women, faster airplanes, and bigger crocodiles, in that order. Which do you have to offer? If it’s none of those, we have nothing to talk about.”
“Here’s my angle,” I began. “By developing Nautilus, you’ve made weight training accessible to a much wider population. Still, most people don’t exercise. We need to hook them earlier. Nobody’s ever studied the fitness and exercise habits of kids in first through fourth grades. That’s what I want to do next. I want to do it with you.”
“How old are you?” Jones asked.
“Thirty-seven,” I said.
Jones said, “When you reach 40, you’ll realize that you don’t know anything and you can’t change anything. Then, you can start over.”
“I look forward to that day,” I said. “For now, with guidance from exercise physiologists over the age of 40, we believe that by getting sound data on what’s up with younger kids, we can help promote a lifelong commitment to physical activity.”
“You sound like someone who wants to save the world,” Jones said. “No one can change anything or anyone. And I don’t particularly like people as a race. The best you can do is try to sell them something and not do too much harm. I don’t want to hurt people. ‘Do no harm’ is the best you can hope for.”
“How can you know what you’re going to do isn’t going to cause harm?” I asked.
“Precisely the point,” said Jones. “You’re not quite as wet behind the ears as I thought when you were breathing into the phone like a stalker. You can’t know. All the research and all the fortune tellers in the world can’t give you that certainty. Therefore, you’re entitled to this position: after taking reasonable precautions, do what makes sound business sense until the day you know it’s causing harm. And if you know that before you start, you can’t start.”
“How can you know that people won’t misunderstand or misuse what you create? Can’t that cause harm?” I asked.
“Whatever the hell you do, you can be damned sure it’s not going to be understood the way you intended. It’s not going to be used properly. You might as well reconcile yourself to that.”
“Can’t you increase the odds?” I asked.
“Oh, you can produce training videos, like I do. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what the hell you do,” Jones said. “One in ten million is used properly. And I’m not sure it’s even that much.”
“But can’t you see the value of starting early, so instead of having to convince adults to re-engage in exercise, kids can stay active all along, without interruption?” I asked.
“Kids are interested in two things: sugar-coated cereals and drugs. And I’m not sure which one is worse,” Jones said.
“Here’s my pitch,” I began. “On the study that just got big media play, we had three household names—the Surgeon General Dr. Koop, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Chris Evert—as our national sponsors. Every child, every teacher, school, and every school system that was part of it received a certificate signed by those three. I’d like to add your name as a national sponsor and as funder of the next one.”
“Look, I fly doctors down to Yucatan at my expense every single week. You know why?” Jones asked.
“To sell,” I said.
“Exactly. To sell my product. If they like it, they’ll not only buy it, they’ll tell their patients to buy it too. I have no interest whatsoever in philanthropy. I’m interested in one thing: sales.”
I didn’t want the conversation to end yet, so I asked, “You got any advice for me?”
“Stay away from all the assholes and scumbags of the world,” Jones said.
“I’ll take your advice in stride. I hope we can talk again sometime,” I said, feeling he had little interest in further conversation.
“Look, forget about the phone,” Jones said. “Next time you’re coming down this way, let me know ahead of time. I’ll take you up flying. We’ll walk with the elephants.”
I never got down to Florida to take Jones up on his offer. I’d been barely holding onto my job due to lack of funding. Trekking down to Florida to walk with Jones and his elephants rightly would have been called a boondoggle. The year after Jones and I talked, the Feds gave me the money I needed, Revlon made Terri its Charlie Girl, and Jones sold Nautilus. With proceeds from selling Nautilus, Jones turned his attention to Med-X, a new line of equipment for testing and rehabilitating weakened muscles in the low back and neck.
While the 1986 sale of Nautilus was underway, the dispersal of Jones’s beloved elephants began. Within a few years, all were sold to zoos, circuses, or private collectors. The dispersal of Jones’s elephants became quite the cause celebre. In March 1987, 20-20 aired a follow-up to “The Flying Elephants” segment. The new segment, “Save the Elephant,” implied that Arthur was breaking promises he made to the babies he rescued three years earlier by not keeping them together as a herd; and, even worse, failing to exercise control over whether their new homes were suitable. Selling four elephants to a Mexican circus was called “a fate worse than death.” Jones responded by slapping ABC with a three-billion-dollar defamation lawsuit for implying he was “a liar, a cheat, dishonest, a man who breaks promises, an animal abuser, a hypocrite, a wacky screwball, inhumane, and that he acted with ulterior motives.” In September 1988, a U.S. District Court dismissed all charges against ABC.
The same year, as Terri was turning 26, Jones filed for divorce from Terri on the grounds she’d been having an affair with one of his employees for over two years. After contesting the divorce’s terms for nearly a year, the two reached a settlement that Jones characterized as overly generous toward Terri, who also bought out Jones’s interest in Jumbolair.
In 1994, Jones broke his mating pattern when at age 68 he married a German woman, Inge Topperwein, whom he originally hired in 1966 to assist him with “filming elephant culling” in Zimbabwe. After that, she lived with Jones, wife #4, and his three children by wife #3. When Inge became wife #6, she had already navigated working with Jones for nearly three decades, making her his longest, continually serving employee. When he created the first Nautilus machine in 1970, Inge painted it blue, hence the name “the Blue Monster.” In 1984, when Jones and Terri flew to Africa in a Boeing 707 to rescue the baby elephants, the spotlight was on Terri. However, Inge was on the ground, “living rough in the bush,” to coordinate with government officials, pay them off, and house the elephants safely until the plane arrived. In his unpublished papers, Jones talks about Inge as the one whom the elephants loved as Mother. One, he says, couldn’t sleep unless his trunk was touching her.
Jones eventually sold Med-X too. He and Inge enjoyed ten years together as a married couple and 38 as colleagues until she died in 2004. Despite claiming “no interest in philanthropy,” when Jones died three years later, he left $8.7 million to the University of Florida, Gainesville. He probably devised a way of rationalizing why it wasn’t really philanthropy.
I regret not taking Jones up on his offer to walk with the elephants and go flying together. In that one short phone call, Jones drilled into me a few soundbites that lingered. “Do no harm,” Jones’s first principle, wasn’t too far off from “First do no harm,” primum non nocere, the fundamental principle of medical ethics and all social interventions. I’d heard “do no harm” before, of course, but Jones threw it in my face like nobody else. I found it far more difficult to accept the notion you can’t save anyone. Having come of age in the late 60s and early 70s, I’d assumed that “saving the world” was the whole reason we’re here. I’m still struggling with that one, even while many organizations have renewed calls to “save the elephants.” In the end, perhaps it’s just as well I never got down to Lake Helen. Had Jones and I gone walking together with the elephants, I probably would’ve ended up walking home with one.
After retiring in early 2015 from public health research, Jim Ross jumped back into creative pursuits after a long hiatus to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. Since then, he’s published 6 poems, over 25 pieces of nonfiction and over 90 photos in 30 journals, including 1966, Apeiron Review, Cargo Lit, Change Seven, Entropy, Friends Journal, Gravel, Lunch Ticket, MAKE Literary Magazine, Meat For Tea, Memory House, Pif Magazine, Riverbabble, and Sheepshead Review. Forthcoming: Bombay Gin, Palooka, Papercuts, and Souvenir Lit. Jim and his wife are parents of two nurses and grandparents of one-year-old twins, and welcomed a new grandbaby in late October. They split their time between Maryland and West Virginia.