Interview with Marcel Peters, Princess Stephanie’s elephant trainer

Marcel Peters has worked with animals for decades. He is an accomplished elephant expert and is HSH Princess Stephanie of Monaco’s right-hand man in caring for her rescued elephant Baby, and Nepal, who recently passed away.

Animal advocate Kat Pirelli-Zucchetta caught up with Marcel at the Princess’ compound above Monaco, and discovered the fascinating story of how two zoo animals, destined for death, became the luckiest elephants alive.

Fonbonne majestically sits at the top of a mountain overlooking Monaco. This beautiful spring day, Marcel and his team of trainers come to greet me, accompanied by their seven show quality Leonberger dogs, who also happen to call Fonbonne home. They kindly take me on a tour of the property and introduce me to all of the other lovely animals: goats, chickens and a very animated Ponkey (½ pony and ½ donkey). Then, I meet Baby, a rescue elephant and the reason why everyone is here, being lovingly fed her favourite fruit by Princess Stephanie.

Monaco Life: Marcel, can you tell us how your career as an animal trainer all began?

Marcel Peters:  In 1961, I joined the circus as a 15-year-old school boy in the United Kingdom and started working with and training horses. Then I started looking after elephants, and that eventually became my forte. I travelled all over Europe with a group of elephants that is still owned today by the ‘Billy Smart Circus’. After some time they needed someone to look after their polar bears as well and they asked if I could help. Of course I agreed, and then I was stuck with those polar bears for about 14 years. I became their trainer and travelled all over Europe with them.

In 1970 we toured South Africa for three years and that’s really how I got started in this career. In 1973 when I finished touring I started my own animal training business, and became an independent trainer working with lions, tigers and elephants all around the world. It is really what I’ve been doing ever since. I still do a lot of elephant work in South Africa when needed, whether its relocation, husbandry, training or managing. Where ever someone needs a hand with animals I try to do it and give something back to the profession and to the animals themselves.

Tell us about your relationship with Princess Stephanie of Monaco?

Well it started well over 40 years ago when I came to the Circus Festival of Monte Carlo with my group of performing lions in 1977. I met Prince Rainier III as he had booked my nine lions act to perform in his circus. Over the years I returned to Monte Carlo with my lion and tiger act, but eventually I stopped performing as I had several trainers working for me and I had been doing it for a long time.

Then, while I was in South Africa doing some elephant work, Princess Stephanie phoned me and said: “Marcel there’s a bit of a problem, there are some elephants in the Lyon Zoo that are going to be euthanised.” I said that the government must have a reason to euthanise the elephants, and she told me that they had Tuberculosis but they hadn’t done any tests for it. I agreed that it was unusual and that the elephants needed rescuing, but I also questioned where we were going to put them once they were saved. She said she wanted to build a place at the top of the mountain called Fonbonne, somewhere that Prince Albert had put aside to build a rescue centre for the elephants. So that’s what we did in 2013.

Then in the middle of July 2013, having finished our structure in Fonbonne, we loaded the elephants in Lyon and transported them here and introduced them to their new home. The condition of the elephants was not great, they were underweight, but over the years we put weight on them. Unfortunately last year the elephant Nepal passed away because she had very bad kidney failure and we just couldn’t keep her alive.

The Princess gave her the best five years of her life and she always had the best of everything. That’s really what we do. I run this compound for the Princess and look after the one elephant we have left, Baby, whom will always be looked after until the day she passes away. Princess Stephanie has made it clear that this place is for her. We have a complete staff and Baby has around the clock attendance. People can donate to the Princess’s charity ‘Baby and Nepal Association’ and the facility can be seen if any donors would like to come and have a look and meet ‘Baby’, as we are always here. The Princess has various other foundations but this one was set up strictly for Baby and Nepal.

The Grimaldi’s have a long history of species preservation and animal awareness, can you recall any interesting stories that you can share with us?

Well, Prince Rainier III loved animals and that is where the Princess got her love for animals. He started the Monaco Zoo, where all the animals had been donated or rescued.  He had many including tigers, a rhino, camels, as well as orangutans and chimps. The Prince would have liked to have had animals everywhere if he could. It is this love that prompted him to start the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, which is the greatest festival on the earth.

What was Prince Rainier III hoping to achieve with the circus festival?

He wanted to show the world that the circus is still alive. Back then the circuses in France were in a very bad way. He wanted to bring only the best circus acts to Monaco every year and show the world via television and live performances what the circus really is. Having a circus is like having a car showroom. You can have a good showroom with a good salesman or you can have a bad one. There are so many animal rights groups now that are anti-animals which has been brought about by social media, but what can we do when there is not a clear understanding of our work?

Are all the Monte Carlo Circus Festival animals well taken care of?

Everyone is well taken care of and only the best of the best are invited.

How do you feel about the future of our planet’s wildlife and what would you like to see happen for it to be preserved for future generations?

Well, the whole thing is money. We must have tracts of land and governments need to be involved. Of course the tourist industry is very good, especially in South Africa. This is one of the safest countries in Africa to travel to and look at wildlife. Tourism is a big incentive for wildlife preservation.

But you cannot afford to give a big tract of land 300 or 400 kilometres squared and fill it full of wildlife. You must have someone to look after it. Independent non-governmental organisations can’t do it alone, the government has to get involved. Humans can’t continue to plant palm oil and chop down the Indonesian or Brazilian forests and just take the resources. We need to be responsible for our actions because in the end the planet will be barren. It is each man himself that has to decide.

What is the one most important piece of advice you have ever learned from anyone?

Believe in yourself.  Make sure that you stay on the right bus and get off at the right station, and most importantly do what you can for the human race and for the animals. The planet is a beautiful place, let’s try to look after it and save all the species we can.

For more information about Baby et Nepal Association visit:

Instagram:  @babyetnepal