Trained Elephant : Liminal Animal
April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
The Romans learned about elephants in battle first from Phyrrus of Epirus, later from Hannibal and Hasdrubal, who brought the beasts onto the Italian penninsula as weapons of war. When frightened, confused or wounded, elephants would often turn away from the enemy to crash through their own ranks, crushing men and creating chaos, in a complete “rejection of human conventions of alliance.” (1)
By injuring and killing their own soldiers, “they threw into confusion the boundaries which humans had constructed to differentiate between friend and foe and between culture and nature,” and earned themselves a reputation for treachery. Elephants that trampled their own troops in spite of the care and training they had been given were perceived as not only “useless, in the sense that lions or bears are useless to humans, but to have betrayed the humans who offered them the alliance.” (2)
CHUNEE was a male Indian elephant imported from Bengal to London in 1809. He appeared on stage in several theatrical productions, including the pantomime Harlequin and Padmanaba, or the Golden Fish, before ownership passed to Edward Cross in 1817 and he was displayed in a menagerie at Exeter Exchange on the Strand. On November 1, 1825, Chunee gored and killed his keeper. Despite being deemed an accident, the elephant was fined one shilling for the offense. In February, 1826, following a period of “madness that made him totally untractable,” probably during his musth, but attributed at the time to an “annual paroxysm” aggravated by a rotten tusk, his behavior became increasingly violent. For days and nights Chunee battered his oak and iron cage until it threatened to explode. He failed to respond to a “calming” dose of powerful purgatives- 6 ounces of calomel and fifty-five pounds of Epsom salts- mixed with molasses. Crowds that gathered to hear the noise had to be restrained by patrolmen. Finally it was determined that Chunee should be killed. On March 1st his keeper tried to feed him “corrosive sublimate” (mercuric chloride) mixed with his hay, which Chunee refused. Soldiers were eventually called in to shoot Chunee with their muskets; he was hit 152 times, but did not die. His keeper finished the job with a harpoon.
Chunee, all 10,000 pounds of him, was skinned, dissected and cut up by a team of surgeons, medical students and butchers before a large paying audience. The story and controversy surrounding his death inspired prose, poetry and a successful play at Sadler’s Wells, entitled Chuneelah; or, The Death of the Elephant at Exeter ‘Change. One pamphlet promised Every Particular Respecting the Madness of the Tremendous Elephant of Exeter Change, and the Manner Adopted to Destroy That Living Mountain, by Firing nearly 150 Balls, with Particulars Relating to His Disesction. His mounted skeleton remained on display in London until 1941 when it was destroyed by a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb. (3)
TOPSY (c.1875-1903), a female elephant belonging to the Forepaugh Circus, lived at Coney Island’s Luna Park. In 1903, after killing three men in three years, it was decided that Topsy herself should be put to death. When hanging as a means of execution was rejected, Thomas Edison offered the option of electrocution. Edison was keen to establish the superiority of his DC current over the “dangerous” AC current promoted by his rival, Nicola Tesla. (AC current had been used to execute humans since 1890.)
On January 4, 1903, Topsy was fed a last meal of carrots laced with 460 grams of cyanide. With Edison’s camera rolling to record the event in front of an audience of 1500, Topsy was fitted with a conducting harness, led forward to stand on metal plates, and 6,600 volts AC was sent through her body. Edison’s film, Electrocuting an Elephant, was shown to audiences throughout the United States.
It was a “slow, difficult process to train elephants for use in battle. And they remained scarcely trained, even after many years of discipline and prolonged practice.” They could not be “counted on to be either always savage, like lions, or always docile, like donkeys.” Elephants captured in battle by the Romans were sent back to the capital for triumphs and spectacles before being slaughtered in front of huge audiences in the Circus. (4)
(1) Shelton, Jo-ann, Dancing and Dying:The Display of Elephants in Ancient Roman Arenas. Daimonopylai, (Winnepeg, 2004)
(3)Altick, Richard, The Shows of London. (London, 1978)