Looking for some specifics on how zoo animals were housed in the earlier days of the zoo, I stumbled on the story of Tusko, the elephant, reputed to be the largest of his kind in captivity and who was quite a sensation in the Northwest during the 20s and 30s.
|Tusko and his trainer, George 'Slim' Lewis|
After a well-reported walk from Virginia and Westlake, going over the Fremont Bridge and up the hill to Phinney Ridge, visitors streamed in to see the remarkable animal at the Woodland Park Zoo, the mayor loudly supervising many of the key details. The Park Board hired George “Slim” Lewis, a well-known elephant man, and paid him $3.50/day to care for Tusko. Children began collecting pennies to enlarge the present elephant house and reimburse the last owner of the elephant. Even as Tusko’s prospects were rising, he collapsed in 1933 of a massive stroke. He was 43.
His death amped up the controversies surrounding Tusko. There was a long struggle to figure out what to do with poor Tusko’s remains, which were the subject of claims from several past owners. Meanwhile, University of Washington medical students removed the skin and bones which were finally taken by a former owner, M.M. Bull, who lived in Eugene. At the same time, Tusko’s 48 pound heart found its way to the Olympic Hotel’s lobby where it was exhibited at the state’s medical convention that year. Years later, after failing to sell what remained of Tusko, Bull’s son gifted the skin and bones to the University of Oregon Natural History Museum. They are still there.
After reading Tusko’s story, I resolved to spend some more time with this animal to see if I could organize my own thinking about the elephant history in the United States, their diaspora across the globe, the relentless attacks, the unspeakable cruelty some have been subjected to and their utility, if any, in captivity.
It is a painful, instructive and sometimes beautiful journey, but mostly painful.
|Poster, Tusko, then Ned, is in the middle|
It must have been quite a scene. In 1908, the Clark Show alone was carrying 12 cages of animals, about 60 wagons and 200 horses and mules. They had two large horse tents – one for the trained horses and wagon horses and another for the mules that pulled the baggage wagons. Advance men would hire out farms to provide water at stops along the way. The Clark Wagon Show had four elephants, two of whom were called ‘pushers.’ Their role was getting behind a stuck wagon and pushing it along a muddy rural road.
Tusko’s name then was Ned and he was still growing into what would become a very large animal standing 12’5” and weigh 17,000 pounds.
It is sad but true that our culture considers anything big, wild and different a killer and Ned was branded one. He could cause trouble and had a few broken ribs on his ledger, but Ned was not a killer, though it didn’t hurt that the audience thought he was. And, it is true that at certain times of the year the male animals would go into ‘musth,’ when the testosterone would flow. During those times, Clark would send Ned to winter quarters in Texas to ride out the storm.
|That's Ned on the left, about a year before the show in|
Chalmer Condon Collection
There are many versions of this story, but the one I will offer comes from the El Paso Times archivist Trish Long, who worked with contemporary clippings of the time. Ned plods across the border along streets filled with amazed people. He’s led into the bull ring and it’s a full house. The first bull charges, Ned is surprised but knocks the bull down. Three others are let into the ring and Ned responds with the full athleticism elephants possess. Soon he has the ring to himself, two bulls have been thrown into the crowd. There are injuries to some of the patrons and the Mexican organizers place an attachment of $500 on Ned and lock the gates of the ring with the intention of holding Ned there so they can sort out what had just happened.
That night, Clark’s young son approaches the arena and asks Ned to come out. Ned follows the familiar voice, easily pushing open the locked gates. He calmly follows the boy across the border to his circus home.
The circus evolved slowly and the display of animals in early America was a simple matter of having something exotic and charging admission to the barn or fenced in lot. There are references to elephants in America as early as 1720.
An animal named ‘Old Bet’ began touring about 1804 and was owned by Hachaliah Bailey who sold shares in his acquisition. Bailey, yes that one, made Old Bet the star of the first real circus – four wagons, several pigs, a couple of dogs and Old Bet. She inspired the Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York, that is today an historic landmark and the site of many weddings.
|Elephant Hotel, Somers, NY|
‘Young Bet,’ was the first trained elephant in the United States. She was able to do several tricks, such as opening a corked bottle and drinking the contents. She was also shot to death. Egged on by the promotional materials put together by Bailey that her skin was so tough a bullet could not penetrate it, a group of Rhode Island men shot her to death in 1825.
|Life-sized statue of Jumbo in St. Thomas, Ontario|
St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada
His stuffed remains went to the Barnum Museum of Natural History where he was adopted as a mascot for the athletic teams at Tufts University, for whom Barnum was a generous contributor. Students would also put pennies in its stuffed trunk or pull the elephant’s tail on the way to an exam. In 1975, Barnum Hall and all its exotic contents burned to the ground. All that was left was Jumbo’s tail, now in the university archives. After the fire, the assistant to the athletic director, Phyllis Byrne, sent a student over to collect some of Jumbo’s ashes which he scooped up in a Skippy’s Crunchy Peanut Butter jar. Frequently, Tufts athletes will rub the jar for good luck before a game. I am not making this up.
According to the May 13, 1922 edition of the Bellingham Herald, a young farmer boy and highly skilled horse trainer was on hand in that Ontario rail yard when Jumbo was struck by the train. His name was Al G. Barnes.
The Bellingham Herald wrote: “Gazing on the dead Barnum elephant, young Barnes declared, 'Some day I'll have a bigger circus than this one and I'll have a bigger elephant than Jumbo!’"
|The Al G. Barnes Circus comes to town|
Tusko in the lead.
Three days later, the Olympia Record reported:
“SEDRO WOOLEY -- After being at large all night, TUSKO, said to be the largest elephant in the world, was captured about three miles west of here at about 10 o'clock this morning. The elephant escaped from a circus which showed here last night and caused considerable public damage. TUSKO ... upset two automobiles standing by the circus tent, stalked angrily down the main street, where he broke up a street dance, then strode to the outskirts of the city to a district known as the Garden of Eden where he wreaked vengeance on fences and a farmer's young orchard.”
The next night, reported by the Bellingham Herald as ‘chastened,’ and ‘heavily chained,’ Tusko went through his paces before record crowds.
Tusko was with Barnes for ten years until sold to a Portland man named Al Painter, the first of several owners that led, ultimately, to Westlake and Virginia, an elephant with nowhere to go, a preening Mayor Dore and a few months of peace at the Seattle Zoo.
“When he is first captured, he is a demon incarnate. But the elephant is a philosopher and when he learns it is useless to fight against his fate, he gives up the contest and straightway decides to make the best of the situation.”
W. Henry Sheak wrote that in the Natural History Magazine, exactly eighty years ago. However, the human/elephant interface is not as comfortable as Mr. Sheak told audiences then.
A Swedish man, Dan Koehl, has tracked 12,760 elephants, 5,640 of them dead and 7,120 living of which 2,307 are wild elephants and nearly 5,000 living elephants in various categories of captivity in 114 countries. This completely remarkable Internet treasure gives us the ability to track elephants over time and is a repository of thousands of individual animal stories.
Elephants die and/or are euthanized for many reasons – old age, severe arthritis, elephant tuberculosis, broken limbs, sepsis, miscarriage, elephant small pox. But for those elephants who don’t ‘make the best of the situation,’ as suggested in the Nature article, their ends were deadly and gruesome in the extreme.
Nick, an aggressive P. T. Barnum elephant, was strangled to death in London in 1898. That same year, Prince, a Great Wallace Brothers elephant, was strangled by two canvassmen who placed a rope around his neck and pulled in opposite directions.
|Thomas Alva Edison executes Topsy|
Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor, volunteered to electrocute Topsy and use his film company to document the event. Edison’s electricity company made and sold direct current electricity which was a competitor to Nicola Tesla’s alternating current product. Tesla’s electricity could be transmitted over great distances and produced outside the cities where most of the market existed at the beginning of the electricity era. Edison’s product required many plants dotted around the cities because its transmission was distance-limited. Tesla's product clearly had the upper hand so Edison did what marketing people have done forever. He changed the subject.
Edison’s said that alternating current was not safe and would kill many of those who purchased the product. So, Edison took to electrocuting all kinds of animals to prove his point, and Topsy was too good an opportunity for the competitive Edison. If Tesla’s alternating current could kill an elephant, then we ought to be truly afraid. Topsy was led out and 6,600 volts of alternating current went through her body with the clever Mr. Edison’s hand on the switch.
The cultural norm was that a human death was a death sentence for the animal. Each of the big circuses were putting down one or two animals a year because of aggressive behavior at the turn of the last century.
|The hanging of Big Mary in Erwin, TN|
It is possible that retribution worked both ways. Black Diamond killed a trainer in 1926 but it was considered out of character and he was allowed to live. He was purchased by the Al. G. Barnes Circus in 1928, just before it sold Tusko. Black Diamond was very connected to his trainer, Curley Pritchett, whom he had known for 28 years and worked with for seven.
In Corsicana, Texas, Black Diamond witnessed a conversation between Curley and Eva Speed Donohoo, the former society editor at the Houston Post who offered Curley a job at Shoestring Ranch, where she kept exotic animals. Curley accepted and left the circus and Black Diamond. When Barnes returned to Corsicana a year and a half later, Pritchett and Mrs. Donohoo came to see Black Diamond. The elephant hurled Pritchett over a car and then attacked Donohoo, killing her by impaling her with his tusks. A mob formed and Black Diamond was chained between two trees until a volunteer firing squad was assembled and the animal could be shot.
Even when aggressive elephants were not killed, subsequent events were tragic. Ziggy was named after his owner Florence Ziegfield, the producer, who had purchased a baby elephant for one of his children. When the animal became too big, Ziegfield sold it to a circus, Singer’s Midgets, who, in turn, donated it and three other aggressive elephants to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.
|Ziggy attacking Slim Lewis|
It is hard to be optimistic in the face of such heartbreak and slaughter, but wait, in the wild, it gets worse! Researchers at Oxford University who are studying human elephant conflicts in India point out that the 40,000 Indian elephants live alongside 20% of the world’s population. The great northern Indian reserves have seen a huge increase in human elephant conflicts. More than one person a day is killed by an elephant in India and, in return 100 elephants annually die as a consequence of human retribution.
There are many reasons why – loss of habitat through deforestation and expanded farming, culling and poaching of animals and other human encroachments – but at the core, the psychological relationship between elephants and humans has changed. Gay Bradshaw, an Oregon State University researcher, in her essay “Elephant Breakdown,” notes that these conflicts have led to a breakdown of a of a gentler culture into one that is significantly more aggressive.
“Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed,” Bradshaw says. “What we are seeing today is extraordinary. Where for centuries humans and elephants lived in relatively peaceful coexistence, there is now hostility and violence. Now, I use the term ‘violence’ because of the intentionality associated with it, both in the aggression of humans and, at times, the recently observed behavior of elephants.”
Bradshaw says that there is a kind of Post Traumatic Stress affecting elephants that leads to aggression. She says that elephant leadership from older, larger elephants is lost to poaching and culling and young elephants no longer have the benefit of the training and acculturation the older elephants provided.
Not only is the violence directed at humans, but at other elephants. A South African researcher says that 90% of elephant deaths in South Africa are attributable to other elephants.
The elephant is also part of the crisis in Sudan. For some 20 years, the Janzaweed Arabs have killed thousands of elephants and sold their ivory to finance their terror against Darfur.
The uneasy peace between elephants and people is getting more unstable. Along with all our other wars, we are falling into one between the two smartest species inhabiting the plant.
But don’t worry, there are just 500,000 or so of them and seven billion of us.
Piece of cake.
Dan Koehl's Elephant Encyclopedia Website
Gay Bradshaw's Kerulos Center on interspecies psychology