originally published January 11, 2014
Consider if you will the mighty elephant. With the possible exceptions of dolphins and William H. Macy, no creature in our great global bestiary is as universally beloved as the elephant. Perhaps we’re taken by the thunderous, loping grace that evokes the style and swagger of a gentle yet powerful former-linebacker grandpa. It could be the sage, Yoda-like perpetual grin. Maybe it’s the fifth limb dangling from its cranium. Whatever the reason, we love these animals.
And so we capture and display them, and sometimes train them to do non-elephant things for our amusement. Since the term ‘animal rights’ entered our lexicon, we have tried a little harder to treat them well, though we don’t always come through because we are humans and innately prone to being complete jerks to nature. There are rancid heaps of tales of human cruelty in elephant history, too many to list here.
It appears to be in our nature to pin unwarranted blame on these exquisite beasts when things go wrong, even when overwhelming evidence of human fault exists. Sure, some elephants are probably assholes, same as any other species. But what horrific dung-spew of soiled logic believes it to be rational to hang an elephant who has ‘misbehaved’? Humankind has created powerful medicines, triumphant satellites, creamy gelatos and the glorious Copacabana shot in Goodfellas, and yet our legacy will forever be stained by crap like this:
On September 11, 1916, a hotel worker named Red Eldridge felt it was time to steer his career down a new set of tracks. He was hired as an assistant elephant trainer with the Sparks World Famous Shows circus. The next day, he was dead. Red had allegedly poked at Mary – an otherwise docile and beloved Asian elephant – behind the ear when she dipped into a watermelon snack. Red couldn’t have known this, but Mary had a severely infected tooth right around that spot, so when she turned on Red it was pure pain-driven instinct.
Mary’s trunk swung into action, tossing Red into a drink stand. She then stepped forward and with the force of ten thousand of Gallagher’s hammers she crushed his skull into chunky soup with her foot. The next day Mary was hauled by train to Erwin, Tennessee, where a railcar-mounted crane hanged her in front of 2500 spectators, including most of the town’s children. I’m sure the kids were overwhelmed with childhood delight, particularly when the chain snapped and a very alive Mary fell to the earth and broke her hip. The second attempt was successful.
Mary was dead. People suck. Let’s move on.
Topsy’s home in 1903 was Coney Island’s Luna Park. She was also responsible for a trainer’s death and was extremely hostile toward two other keepers. Forget that the trainer had burned her with a cigar and the other two assholes kept poking her with pitchforks. The Forepaugh Circus decided to put Topsy down and to do so, they enlisted the help of Thomas Edison.
Edison was thrilled to have an opportunity to embarrass his competition. He wanted to show the world how dangerous Grover Westinghouse’s AC current was, so he had Topsy zapped with 6,600 volts of juice while Edison filmed the event for national exhibition. Edison made some bucks and the circus got its wish. Everyone wins. Except for Topsy. And our collective human soul, I suppose.
I don’t want to delve deep into the fate of Castor and Pollux, two elephants at the Jardin des Plantes zoo in Paris when the Prussians moved in and seized the city in 1870. The city was running out of food, and Castor and Pollux – along with horses, cats, dogs, rats, antelopes, yaks, zebras, camels, wolves, deer, kangaroos and donkeys – were served up to keep Parisians chock full of protein. It was an ugly time.
But enough about our moronic tendencies toward our elephant friends. Like I said up top, we love these creatures. Pope Leo X kept one as a pet in the sixteenth century! Columbia, the first circus elephant to be born in captivity, became a matter of contention when P.T. Barnum wanted to buy him from the Bailey Circus, which led to the merger of the two institutions into the biggest big-top show on earth. Elephants had a hand (or a stomping foot) in shaping the very direction of 19th century western culture.
Then there’s Jumbo. Jumbo belonged to Barnum years before the Columbia debacle. He took part in Barnum’s 21-elephant march across the Brooklyn Bridge to prove it was safe. He was beloved by his audiences, living on as the Tufts University mascot, and in our dictionaries. The very existence of the word ‘jumbo’ in the English language is because of this elephant’s name.
Elephants can even be war heroes. Lin Wang was captured by Chinese forces during a 1943 chapter of the Second Sino-Japanese War. He was plunked into Chiang Kai-Shek’s ‘Chinese Expeditionary Force’ and helped to transport supplies, to build monuments and to raise money. He moved to the Taipei Zoo after the war, where he became the most popular beast in town.
Hattie, who took up residence in the Central Park Zoo in New York, was billed as the most intelligent of all elephants. Naturally she came from Barnum & Bailey – I think most zoos back then bought their elephants from circuses. Hattie could understand English. Well, somewhat. She responded to her own name and executed a minimal number of tricks by verbal command. Sure, she was beloved, but it’s not like she could reply.
Not like Kosik. Kosik is a male Indian elephant in Yongin, South Korea who can allegedly imitate eight Korean words. Among his vocabulary are the Korean words for ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘sit’ and ‘lie down’. I don’t know how accurate he is, but you can see a clip of him online and let me know. It’s pretty spectacular. He thinks he’s people.
Remember when Bart Simpson won an elephant, named him Stampy, and 22 minutes of hilarity ensued? It turns out writer John Swartzwelder wasn’t pulling his ideas completely out of the air. In 1966, a Chiffon Tissue contest was offering a grand prize of either $3000 or a baby elephant. Anchorage grocer Jack Snyder picked the elephant. Unlike the Simpsons episode, there was no evil ivory dealer, no tar pit rescue, no wacky drive-time DJs. Annabelle was moved to the newly-christened Alaska Children’s Zoo. No word on whether or not Mr. Snyder ever regretted not taking the cash.
Lastly there’s Queenie, a shining of example of how human adulation can go too damn far. Queenie’s schtick was playing the harmonica and dancing for crowds. Also, she was plunked on a massive pair of waterskis and pulled across bodies of water. Hey, it was the 50’s, people were into some weird-ass entertainment.
Queenie’s handlers faced some heavy criticism, but they insisted she loved it. Even after a passing tugboat’s wake knocked Queenie off her skis in a 1959 incident in Pittsburgh, her “natural snorkel” was simply held out of the water by her owner until a crane showed up and carted her to safety.
Humans really do love elephants, even if we often display that love through enslavement, forced performances and ugly executions. We’re a wonky species, and maybe we just don’t know how to handle something so grand and majestic as a beautiful elephant.
Or maybe we’re just assholes. Can’t rule that out.