Pick from the Past
Natural History, September-October 1922

The Elephant in Captivity

Large African elephant at the New York Zoological Park

The large African elephant at the New York Zoological Park.—This animal is more than 9 feet in height. The aggregate weight of from thirty-five to forty men of averabe build would be required to offset the total of 6000 pounds which, it is estimated, this elephant would register if placed on the scales.

Photo by Elwin R. Sanborn, New York Zoological Society; © Wildlife Conservation Society
THE elephants are a dying race. In the Pleistocene, and I may say Post-Pleistocene, these giant mammals were the dominant form of animal life. There were many species and, judging from the many fossils found, multitudes of individuals. Charles F. Holder in his thoughtful book, The Ivory King, expresses the conviction that the elephant could not have been extinct in Alaska more than five hundred years at the coming of Columbus. The order was clearly divided into two well-defined groups in those early days, mastodons and mammoths, the distinction being based primarily on the structure of the crowns of the molar teeth. These animals had a wide geographical distribution, being spread over all the grand divisions of the earth exclusive of Australia.

Numerous well-defined species have disappeared in recent geological times, leaving only their huge skeletons in the peat bogs and alluvial deposits to remind us of the days when they browsed on the overhanging foliage or thundered through the forest primeval, pursued by savage man with his stone spears and sling shots. A few mammoths only left their entire carcasses, including hide, hair, and stomach contents, frozen in the ice and gravels of Siberia. Of the many forms living so recently, only two, the Indian and the African elephants, survive.

Just how much use Paleolithic man or Neolithic man made of the elephant, we do not know. We find the form of the mammoth drawn and painted on the rock walls of the old caves of Europe, and even carved on a piece of his own tusk. We find his bones among the débris on the floor of these caves, or in the kitchen middens near their mouths, buried with the remains of the reindeer, bison, wolf, cave bear, horse, dog, and man himself. The ivory was carved into objects of use and ornament. It cannot be doubted that primitive man used the flesh of the mammoth for food. It is probable also that he devoted the hide and hair, and possibly the bones, to various purposes. But there is no evidence that early European man ever domesticated the mammoth.

The beginning of domestication of the elephant, like that of other domestic animals, is shrouded in obscurity. When it began, no man knows. But unlike the case of most domesticated animals, the original wild stock of the elephant still persists. Indeed, this great quadruped is not only such a slow breeder, but such an infrequent breeder in captivity, even in its own native climate, that practically all elephants in zöological gardens, in traveling menageries, and in domestication even in India, Burma, and Siam, have been obtained from the wild herds of the forest and jungle, and tamed.

Not a few baby elephants, reports say, have been born of adults with traveling menageries in this country. Most of these reports are fabrications. But I know of two well-authenticated births occurring here; in neither case was the mother pregnant when imported. The first of these was in Philadelphia, at the winter quarters of the old Bailey, Scott, and Hutchinson show, in 1880. P. T. Barnum came to Philadelphia to see the baby and offered the owners a goodly sum for this feature attraction, but they only laughed at him. However, Mr. Barnum was not a man to be turned from his purpose and he proposed that the two shows be united. This suggestion proved acceptable and was the beginning of the Barnum and Bailey circus. The baby was named Columbia and lived for many years in the circus menagerie. Although her mother, Hebe, commonly known about the show as Babe, was one of the best-natured elephants I ever knew, the daughter grew meaner and meaner as she got older, until in 1905 or 1906 she had to be killed. Mr. Bates, who was assistant superintendent of elephants for a long period of years, told me she inherited her vicious disposition from her sire. The other baby was born at the Barnum and Bailey winter quarters at Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1882. He was named Bridgeport and was burned up in the fire in 1887 that destroyed much of the splendid menagerie of Barnum and Bailey.

It is doubtful whether any elephant other than the Indian has been domesticated. The elephants that Hannibal brought against Rome may have been the African. Unfortunately no drawing or other picture has been found to throw light in the subject. From what we know of the

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.
African elephant of today, however, it seems extremely doubtful if this species could be sufficiently subjugated to be of any use in warfare. And if Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, could bring Indian elephants to Greece, why could not Hannibal bring them to Carthage?

Twenty years ago the old Forepaugh-Sells show carried two African elephants, a male and a female. They were both of low intelligence and vicious disposition. Frequently the keepers had to hitch an Indian elephant to one of the African elephants to pull it on or off the train. They always had to be kept heavily chained. In our herd of thirty elephants, when I was with the Ringling menagerie in 1906, was one female African elephant. She was not vicious but a veritable “dumb-head.”

I think the tallest elephant I have ever seen alive is the big African now in the New York Zoological Park. He is 9 feet, 3 ¼ inches tall, and is estimated to weigh 6ooo pounds. He is vicious and cannot be handled. He has worn off his tusks back beyond the lips by fighting the bars of his enclosure. One needs only to look at the rounded forehead and much smaller brain case of the African elephant to expect less intelligence from him than from his Asiatic cousin

There are few if any animals of such strength and intelligence as the Indian elephant that can be subjugated and tamed to the same degree and in so short a time as this great proboscidian. Practically every elephant in captivity was at first a wild animal born of wild parents, and reared in the forest. 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. Most elephants are broken and are safe to handle inside of six weeks.

The brain of the Indian elephant is two and one half times the size of that of man. It is also richly convoluted. In captivity this elephant manifests remarkable intelligence. The dog bas acquired much of his sagacity from his long association with man. The elephant has not had the advantage of countless generations of development in human society. Yet what other animal could learn in a few days his place in a big tent and be depended upon to go there and stay there, when told to do so, as is commonly the case with circus elephants? I have known one to stand by his own particular stake for a considerable time without being chained fast.

I once had an experience at Ashland, Kentucky, with the old John Robinson circus, which made me wonder if it is not rather because an elephant does not wish to leave his place than because he is not clever enough to free himself, that we find him patiently in one spot fastened only by a chain thrown around a stake. I came into the menagerie a short time after the parade and found Tillie, the largest member of the herd, at a considerable distance from her place, quietly feeding on the rich, succulent grass with which the lot was covered. She very readily went back with me and I took a half-hitch about the stake. In less than five minutes I saw she was loose again. Thinking I had not fastened her securely, I brought her back and this time took extra care in chaining her. I then went out to lunch. When I returned, she was once more grazing. As I was bringing her back for the third time, the superintendent of the menagerie came in and said: “You might as well let her go; she wants to eat grass and it will not do any harm. When the people are in, she’ll stay in her place.” I then watched her. She took hold of her chain, but did not pull a steady pull, instead shaking and wriggling until she had lifted it up off the stake.

Like most animals, elephants are fond of rubbing against a tree, pole, or other object. But for such great beasts to rub against the menagerie center poles means disarranged lamps or even more serious damage, so they are commanded to stand by the poles and yet not to touch them.

As the elephant walks beside its keeper, it lowers its pillar-like legs deliberately as though conscious of the crushing force of their descending weight. Although the author has walked around the circus ring for hours with elephants in order to exercise them, he does not recall that one ever came into contact with his foot, and such an experience would indeed be unforgettable.
The latter part of the command is, of course, sometimes forgotten, and yet one is often obliged to marvel at their almost perfect memory and obedience. The following incident illustrates the intelligence and keen comprehension of this interesting mammal:

One evening in the South I was pacing up and down in front of the Robinson herd. The night was cold and I was trying to keep warm. Tom, a small bull with very long tusks, began rubbing against a center pole. The lamps at once commenced to swing as in a crazy dance. I shouted, “Tom, that pole!” He started to get away, but he was very slow and deliberate in all his movements, especially in doing things you asked him to do. Queen, a big cow who stood by him, put her head against his flank and gave him a push that landed him well away from the pole. She was not very obedient herself, but she knew what I wanted him to do and saw that he did it.

We fed the herd a mash of bran and oats once or twice a day, placing a pile of this food between each pair of elephants. Tillie and Queen, the two largest members of the herd, stood together. Almost invariably Tillie would divide the pile, quite equally and fairly, pulling her share over closer to her. But when Queen was looking the other way, she did. not scruple to reach over and take a handful (or trunkful) off Queen’s pile.

Most of the elephants with the Robinson circus were trained animals and I have seen them in the winter quarters at Terrace Park, Ohio, going through their acts without any human assistance, apparently for the mere pleasure of the exercise or to relieve the monotony of life in the building. The elephant house was built against a low hill; the windows on that side were high on the wall. I have seen them get up on their hind feet to look out of these windows.

As with many forest-loving animals the eyes of the elephant are not good for long range. But the senses of smell and of hearing are very keen. I was in the elephant house at the Wallace winter quarters at Peru, Indiana, one winter afternoon. The herd was feeding on, corn fodder, making a loud, rustling sound as they handled the stalks and dry leaves. Presently there was some strange noise outside, not loud but peculiar and unusual. Instantly the rustling ceased. Every one of the great beasts was standing perfectly still, the great ears thrown out, listening. For fully a minute absolute silence reigned. Then, as the sound was not repeated, they went back to their fodder.

The rhythmic, pendulum-like swinging from side to side, so common with elephants in captivity, I have always considered an effort to relieve the monotony of standing in one spot for long periods of time and to obtain some exercise. I do not remember ever to have seen an elephant indulge in this practice when he was not chained fast. It is a common belief that in throwing dirt over his back the elephant is trying to protect the sensitive parts of the skin from the bites of insects. But elephants do this in winter, when insects are rarely in evidence, as well as in summer. I am inclined to think the practice was begun as a protection against insects, but has been kept up for so many generations that it has become a fixed habit and is indulged in, almost unconsciously, at all seasons. Then, too, it may be a sort of dust bath, the dirt having a cooling or soothing effect on the skin.

To illustrate the reasoning power of the elephant, Chambers’ Encyclopedia relates the following incident. A tame elephant in India chanced to fall into a pit. There were some billets of wood and old lumber scattered over the bottom of the pit. He gathered these together and made a pile of them. Then mounting upon the pile he was able to make his escape.

Several years ago, when Dunk was still living, I visited the elephant house in the National Zoological Park. The floor of Dunk’s enclosure was raised several inches above that of the front of the building. A peanut lay at the base of this raised floor and Dunk was trying to obtain it. But it was too close to the raised floor and he could not get hold of it. After a little he put his trunk down near the peanut and blew a gentle blast, rolling it out where it was easily accessible.

Dunk was the only elephant I ever knew who, having “gone bad” in a traveling menagerie, regained his good disposition in a park. Usually when an elephant “goes bad,”

When an elephant exerts his strength, even brick walls yield to his pressure. In a combat between two elephants housed in the Wallace winter quarters, one pushed the other through a solid brick wall fourteen inches thick.
he is bad ever afterward. Bolivar, of the Philadelphia garden, and Chief, of the Cincinnati garden, are conspicuous examples. Chief became more and more wicked after he entered the garden, until he had to be put to death.

When I was with the Ringling menagerie, we had a large female that we used as a pushing elephant. One morning the assistant superintendent used her to push a heavy Wagon across a soft lot. But the harder she pushed, the deeper the wheels went into the sand. She stepped back, her little beadlike eyes on the heavy vehicle, and seemed to be meditating upon the problem. Then she reached down with her trunk, took hold of one of the wheels, and gave a strong lift, at the same time pushing forward with her head; the wagon moved out of the rut.

The passions of fear, hatred, jealousy, and love are all keenly developed in the elephant. Although he is brave to face any danger he understands, no animal so quickly takes to flight at some unusual sight or sound. At Morrelton, Arkansas, I was riding in the howdah on Tillie in the street parade. The lot where our encampment was located was about a mile from the town and the road to it followed the railway, the latter being elevated on an embankment about ten feet above the public thoroughfare. A crowd of people climbed to the railroad to look down on the parade as we went back. As usual, the elephants were bringing up the rear. We had got about half way back to the lot when an engine approaching from behind began whistling as a signal for the people to get off the track. This threw the elephants into a panic and they started to run. One of the circus girls who was riding in the howdah with me jumped and screamed to me to do likewise. But I knew the safest place for me was on the back of that elephant, provided I could stay there. So I held on to the howdah with might and main. We soon quieted the elephants with soothing words and they stopped their mad flight. The race did not last long, but it was interesting while it did last.

When an elephant is badly scared, he becomes panic stricken and takes complete leave of his senses. Then he is likely to run over you, trample on you, or crush you against something. It was in this way that Lockhart, the famous trainer, was killed. He was loading one Sunday morning in London, when something frightened the herd. The elephants started to run through the railroad yards and Lockhart after them. A big bull, in mad terror, crushed him against the side of a car. But the elephant is ordinarily a very careful animal and when not frenzied by fear, never hurts a man accidentally. I have walked around a circus ring for hours with elephants, giving them exercise, but do not remember that one of them ever touched my foot with his foot. But when a horse was put into the ring to accustom him to walk with elephants, the horse and I began at once to tread on each other’s feet.

We once had a large female elephant that did an act with a very small pony. At one stage of the act the little pony would lie down in the ring and let the big pachyderm step over him. She was very much attached to the pony and was so afraid she might step on him that her extreme caution became humorous. She moved her feet so slowly that the trainer had to jab her with the hook to hurry her up a little.

The likes and dislikes of the elephant are very pronounced and these create some of the hardest problems elephant men have to solve. With the Robinson show we had a small female known as Queenie. Tillie, the star performer of the herd, was very much attached to Queenie, and if the latter made any noise while the elephant act was in progress, Tillie would break away and race back to the menagerie, with the whole herd at her heels. At Cumminsville, a suburb of Cincinnati, we had such a stampede, and the people lost their heads and rushed down on to the hippodrome track. The whole herd went through the crowd on the double quick without hurting a single individual, illustrating the exceeding carefulness of this, the largest of the world’s land mammals. Some big strong man with a tent stake always had to be set to guard Queenie and make all sorts of dire threats as to what he would do to her if she dared open her mouth.

The elephant often becomes affectionately attached to his keeper and will fight for him. Tillie formed a close attachment for a nine-year-old girl belonging to one of the circus troupes. Every evening the child came into the menagerie, and the big beast would fold her trunk

Though in their general disposition resembling the little girl who “when she was good, she was very, very good,” the elephant when he has once “gone bad” is apt to grow steadily more horrid. When the temper of such an elephant reaches the danger point, it becomes necessary to kill him.
gently about her, fondle her, and express in many ways her liking. If any one approached the little girl, Tillie would step back and throw out her ears in a threatening attitude.

No animal is quicker to resent an injury or insult, or supposed insult. Charles Alderfer, now manager of the Alderfer Circus, began his life as a showman with the elephants of the Wallace menagerie. One day in winter quarters the head painter wanted some wagons moved and Alderfer volunteered to bring out an elephant. He brought out Pilate, notoriously surly in disposition. In backing one of the wagons, the pole, or tongue, struck Pilate on the side. He thought it was Alderfer’s fault and started for him, his ears spread out like the sails of a yacht. The painter said for a few minutes he would not have given fifteen cents for Alderfer’s life. The latter ran at top speed and jumped over a fence. Then he put the hook into Pilate, climbed back, led him to the elephant house, chained him up, and whipped him severely. Pilate apparently recognized the injustice of his suspicion for after that he was always the friend of Alderfer.

No animal hates more intensely, or avenges himself more cruelly on his enemy, be that enemy human or of his own species. In October 1892, there was an exciting elephant fight at the Wallace winter quarters. It occurred on Sunday evening. The show had been in from the road only a few days. There were five elephants in the herd, four of them big bulls. After an early supper, the keepers left their charges, each chained to the floor by the left foreleg, and went to town. In some unaccountable way, four of the elephants got loose. Pilate and Diamond had always had an antipathy for each other and at once began fighting. Their trumpeting made the night hideous. The lions and tigers in a near-by building added their roaring and screaming to the awful chorus and the neighbors for miles around thought bedlam had been turned loose. The two vicious brutes fought savagely until Pilate had one of his tusks broken, whereupon Diamond put his head against his antagonist’s side and pushed him clear through the outer wall of the building, a solid brick wall fourteen inches thick. They had gored each other until the building looked as if a river of blood had flowed through it. But, strange to relate, neither of them was seriously hurt and in a few days, barring Pilate’s broken tusk, they appeared to be in as good condition as ever.

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