The Elephant in Captivity

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.

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