Gunda, a wild-caught elephant from India, offers the young readers of St. Nicholas an illustrative reformation story.
“From the moment he was taken from the crate Gunda was sullen, fierce, wickedly inclined, and considered dangerous…” For the first month, “Gunda’s only mission in life seemed to be the destruction of everything within reach of his trunk. He wrecked his stall, threatened his keeper, and gave many evidences of being genuinely bad elephant….”
A young trainer Frank Gleason took over the training of Gunda the “bad” elephant, and in just two days’ time, “[t]he wicked young elephant had become not only good, but really obedient, for he obeyed Gleason’s commands with an accuracy and willingness that made the Bronx officials marvel…. Now he is as gentle and lovable as one could wish.” Pawned out for pricey fifteen-cent rides and freely-offered for petting to visitors, Gunda seems to have become a beloved fixture of the Bronx Zoo.
Yet it is difficult for me to find much pleasure in this uplifting story of a “bad” elephant’s reformation. What, exactly, makes for a “bad” elephant? What wild animal, captured and transported thousands of miles into a lifetime of confinement, could be expected to “behave”? The article goes on to make mention of “Central Park Tom and others who became murderers and met a murderer’s fate”; alas, I haven’t found anything on this infamous Central Park Tom, but there is, of course, the infamous case of Topsy, the “bad” circus elephant who was electrocuted by Thomas Edison in 1903.
There’s a atatue dedicated to Romeo, a “serial killer” elephant, in Delavan, Wisconsin, some sort of “circus capital.” This site, Road Side America, also links to many other such ghastly memorials across the country. As recently as 1994, an elephant in Honolulu was shot for going “berserk” and killing its trainer. (No memorial).
As I poked around the web further, I just started feeling ill. The stills from the 2001 footage of the abuse of Britain’s last circus elephant, Anne, make me sick to my stomach. When can we announce our last?
Van Eaton, Helen D. “Gunda.” St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks 32 (May-Oct. 1905). Ed. Mary Mapes Dodge.1090-1093