The Curious Case of Ringling's Living Unicorn

SideshowWorld / SideshowWorld

Dr. Charles Reid, distinguished professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, held the X-ray up for the gathered reporters to see. It was quite clear, he told them, that the horn of the creature in the radiograph was part of the skull. It was not an implant or an artificial addition.

The members of the press turned their attention to Lancelot, the docile animal that looked remarkably like a goat and who likely contributed to the room smelling like a petting zoo. He stood two feet, six inches tall, not including the large protrusion erupting from the middle of his forehead. The reporters were told they could pull on the horn to see for themselves. It didn’t come off.

As they tugged, Lancelot munched on some rose petals. Despite the controversy his presence had created among animal rights groups during his visit to New York in April 1985, he seemed to suffer no crisis of identity. Another professor, Dr. William Donawick, declared him “content, healthy,” and—in case there was doubt—“living.”

Lancelot had just been validated. He was a content, healthy, living unicorn.

Lancelot with circus proxy Heather Harris. Image Credit: CircusNoSpinZone

As explained by the spokespeople at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the “official” origin of Lancelot the Living Unicorn required some suspension of disbelief. The creature, they said, had simply “wandered up to a tent” when the show touched down in Houston in July of 1984. Enchanted by his arrival, they assigned him a caretaker, a former dancer named Heather Harris, and proceeded to take him around the country so audiences could see this magical aberration of nature for themselves.

For contractual reasons, Lancelot’s original owner couldn’t say anything to ruin the narrative. He went by the name Oberon Zell, and he was a self-professed wizard fascinated by cryptozoology, Neopaganism, and polyamory. In the 1970s, Zell read The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle's fantasy novel, and began to study mentions of the unicorn throughout history. In their most common iteration, they were horse-like, with a single uniform horn on their head that could turn a poisoned body of water into something pure.

This path of research led Zell to discover the work of Franklin Dove, a biologist active in the 1930s who had discovered a method for fusing the horns of a goat together. The trick—actually, a simple surgical procedure—was to get a kid less than a week old, while the horns’ “buds” were still just part of the skin and not connected to the skull, maneuver them close together, and stitch them so they met in the center of the forehead. As they grew inwardly, the horns would merge.

The result? A unicorn. More or less.

Zell, who took biology and pre-med in college, began using Dove’s notes as the basis for his own work in 1980. Using angora goats for their luxurious coats and cross-breeding them with Saanen goats to get slightly higher legs, he was able to successfully coerce his bleating patients to grow a single horn without complication. Aside from a little bit of sanding, they required no maintenance or further modification.

“Many people could not even recognize them as being goats at all,” Zell told in 2007. “And of course, that was perfectly reasonable. They were unicorns. And they knew it! They were amazingly charismatic!”

From 1980 to 1984, Zell donned a sorcerer’s robe and appeared at Renaissance fairs with his charismatic unicorns, inviting curiosity wherever he went. The agents who booked him for the smaller venues eventually put him in touch with Ringling Bros., who offered a four-year licensing deal to take his four best animals on tour with them across the country. Zell agreed to the terms, which prohibited him from discussing his methods for contorting nature.

He proceeded to disappear to avoid the press. He would miss out on all of the controversy.

Zell with an unknown goat. Image Credit: SideshowWorld

Ringling Bros. began to advertise their “Living Unicorn”—a name which they eventually trademarked—in early 1985. By the time their touring show hit New York that April, both the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) began to express concern over how Lancelot had been made to seem like something out of a storybook. Representatives went to the circus expecting to see a chin strap holding a prop in place. Instead, the horn seemed biologically sound, which was even scarier.

“My worst fear has apparently been realized,” ASPCA then-president Dr. John Kullberg told the Los Angeles Times. An implant could be painful for the goat and possibly detrimental to its health. Kullberg cautioned the public not to pay for “freak shows” and demanded to examine the unicorn and his three stand-ins while the circus was at Madison Square Garden; they were rebuffed. Allen Bloom, vice-president for Ringling, called critics “grinches” who were out to destroy the magical realism of Lancelot. They would not publicly acknowledge he was anything other than nonfictional.

“I can’t believe Ringling Bros. has the nerve to insist it is a real unicorn,” Nancy Blaney, a Humane Society spokesperson, said. “The circus is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture got involved, dispatching veterinarians to get a closer view of the unicorn. Their report: Lancelot was a goat, and he seemed fine. USDA chief veterinarian Dr. Gerald Toms correctly speculated that a simple grafting procedure had been done. If anesthesia was used, he said, Lancelot shouldn’t have suffered any pain or lasting effects. A day later, Ringling Bros. held a press conference with X-rays confirming the horn’s natural growth.

Lancelot took the hysteria in stride. He appeared at a New York disco next to Harris, his caregiver, and Eric Douglas, Kirk’s son. Pre-show grooming helped ward off the noxious stench common to billy goats; thanks to the publicity, Ringling filled arenas, kids craning their necks to get a glimpse of the creature that stood atop a float and circled the main floor like parading royalty.

“It looks more like a dog,” one said.

A man-made unicorn in existential crisis. Image credit: SideshowWorld

In February 1986, Lancelot was seized by sheriff’s deputies in Daytona Beach, Florida. Their claim to him stemmed from a 1921 state law prohibiting anyone from exhibiting a disfigured or malformed animal for profit. It was a second-degree misdemeanor.

Authorities said they wouldn’t act unless a complaint was filed. The Florida chapter of the Humane Society was happy to oblige them.

Lancelot was once again subjected to X-rays. Another veterinarian agreed the horn appeared to be the result of surgical intervention shortly after birth. He was returned in time for that evening’s performance. No charges were filed.

While Lancelot had a four-year deal, Ringling opted to exercise only two years. Company president Kenneth Feld liked to rotate attractions on a regular basis to help dampen the idea that if someone missed the circus once, they could just catch the same show the following year. In 1987, Lancelot went to a “unicorn retirement home,” according to Feld, and the show began to promote King Tusk, a 12-foot-tall elephant.

By 1990, Zell had stopped crafting his unicorns, with the last member of his stock passing in 2005. A patent granted to him in 1984 may have prevented anyone else from using his particular method until 1992, when it expired.

While observers felt Ringling may have pulled a bit of a bait and switch, Ringling spokeswoman Debbie Linde made a reasonable point.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s a unicorn,” she told the press. “A unicorn is an animal with one horn.”