The Elephant in Captivity

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.

Recent Stories

The way they live, the food they eat, and the effect on us

A true but unlikely tale

Story and Photographs by William Rowan

Increasing day length on the early Earth boosted oxygen released by photosynthetic cyanobacteria.

Genomic evidence shows that Denisovans and modern humans may have overlapped in Wallacea.