Jumbo the elephant: the story of London Zoo’s most famous resident

“For nearly 15 years after he arrived at the London zoo Jumbo gave very little trouble, made the turnstiles click profitably, and was a source of tremendous pleasure to many thousands of visitors of all ages and all stations, including Queen Victoria herself and the children of the Royal Household… [But, keepers] Bartlett and Scott certainly needed all their proven courage and ingenuity when, in 1880, Jumbo, the biggest of all the beasts, began to play up.” 
W.P. Jolly, author of Jumbo.

Jumbo book by W.P. Jolly

Last weekend the heart-wrenching BBC documentary; Attenborough And The Giant Elephant broadcast to a huge outpouring of sympathy for the treatment of a ‘celebrity elephant’ in Victorian times. It seems the ideal time, therefore, to consider the roles of celebrity elephants across different cultures.

I attended the European premiere of the powerful documentary Gods in Shackles at the beginning of October; a documentary that explores the use of elephants in temples and festivals in Kerala, India. The film examines the somewhat contradictory attitudes towards the elephants, in which they are at once both beaten and abused and placed among the gods.

Gods in Shackles film

While the content of the film may be shocking (as I noted in my earlier blog post, one celebrity elephant featured in the documentary was known to have had razor blades hidden in his food in an attack by supporters of a rival elephant), it’s easy to forget that here in the UK, we’ve seen elephants treated exactly the same way — a fact that brings me hope that attitudes toward these loving, intelligent and sentient animals can change across India, too.

In England, our most famous resident elephant went by the name Jumbo.

London Zoo’s first African elephant, Jumbo — who would later cross The Pond and become one of the most famous pachyderms under the charge of the Ringling Brothers — is the reason the word ‘jumbo’ is now synonymous with elephants and used to describe large objects in the English language (and why it was added to the dictionary as such in the 1880s).

Jumbo dictionary definition

London Zoo’s most famous resident was later joined by a second African elephant; a female called Alice, and along with their impressive sizes (which set them apart from the other resident Indian elephants), the Press’ decision to report them as being romantically involved — when they in fact rarely crossed paths — helped to elevate their status; particularly that of Jumbo, when it came to his departure overseas.

Knowing that Jumbo’s story was used as inspiration for the Disney classic Dumbo and having seen the merchandise and literature surrounding Jumbo, the supposed ‘world’s largest elephant’ at the Making Nature exhibition in London’s Wellcome Gallery earlier in the year, I already had a fair understanding of Jumbo’s celebrity.

Arriving at the zoo’s site in Covent Garden in 1865, as part of an exchange with a Parisian zoo (they received a rhinoceros in return for the African elephant), he was the first African elephant that zoo visitors could ride. Formerly, all London’s riding elephants had been of the smaller Indian species.

Having the opportunity to ride such a grand creature — with the promise of one day growing to around 11 feet tall and carrying tusks of up to 7 feet long — endeared Jumbo to the crowds greatly. That and, as the BBC documentary points out, the timing of his popularity coinciding with the development of photography; meaning he could be documented in the public eye far and wide.

Jumbo the elephant offering rides

Zoo visitors taking a ride on Jumbo — up to six at a time.

Although Jumbo never did reach 11 foot in height, at his time of death he measured just over 10 feet (3.2 metres), which is an impressive height for an elephant aged 24, as he could have still had up to 16 years left to grow before reaching full height. The average height of a 24-year-old male elephant is around 2.7 metres (just shy of 9 feet tall), putting him at 20 per cent larger than average. His impressive stature earned him the perhaps exaggerated title of ‘the world’s largest elephant’.

Much like the elephant rides offered in tourist destinations across Asia and beyond today — which most people with an awareness of animal psychology recognise as being cruel — Jumbo was made to carry visitors in wooden benches slung high on either side of his back.

The seats faced outwards however, rather than forward facing, so riders would sit with their backs to the elephant. This allowed room for more riders — and with even less understanding of animal welfare than today, it was not unusual to see Jumbo ferrying up to six passengers through the Zoological Gardens.

elephant with riders

The biggest error on the part of Jumbo’s keepers was their ignorance to the animal’s needs — as perhaps is often the case with captive animals in zoos.

Abraham Dee Bartlett was the zoo’s head naturalist, and with Jumbo in his charge, he sort the assistance of keeper Matthew Scott, who would eventually travel to America with the elephant. Bartlett, while not truly understanding the implications of caring for a sentient being, at least understood the need to keep the animal under control for the public’s and his own sake.

He understood the change in male elephants as they reach adulthood (musth), which is something that today’s elephant keepers (mahouts) in Kerala — who are charged with caring for the country’s festival elephants — still give little allowance for.

As reported in Gods in Shackles, 75 people and 167 elephants were killed during the festival season from 2012 – 2015, due to elephants breaking from their mahouts’ command whilst in a state of heightened aggression. Those mahouts who do understand the implications of musth often chemically castrate the elephants to stop the production of these hormones, which can make them a danger to the public and themselves.

Abraham Dee Bartlett

Abraham Dee Bartlett, head of London Zoo during the days of Jumbo’s residence

Bartlett understood that all male elephants around the age of 20 become troublesome and dangerous — so it was no surprise to him when, in 1880, Jumbo began to play up; smashing his elephant house with his trunk, tusks and feet. Bartlett reinforced the elephant’s house with timber beams, in fear that Jumbo would escape and attack zoo guests.

At 14 years old Bartlett had personally witnessed Chunee the elephant of the Covent Garden Theatre killed after charging at crowds in a state of fury. W.P. Polly notes; “Everyone was astonished and frightened at the fury of the charges made again and again by the maddened elephant. Poison had no effect and there was very real danger that the beast might break out of his enclosure and bring the whole building down in ruins. Eventually a detachment of Foot Guards was rushed up from the nearby barracks, but even then shot after shot had to be fired into the wretched animal, and only after he had been hit 152 times was he pronounced dead.”

Expert opinion given in Attenborough And The Giant Elephant argues, however, that Jumbo’s rages may have been more likely a result of his poor diet of sticky buns, sweets and alcohol given to him by zoo guests; along with toothache from his deformed teeth; witnessing the death of his mother in the wild during his early capture and passage into captivity and the long term affects from a lack of companionship with other elephants.

His story reminded me of the film The Elephant in the Room, made in association with Born Free Films. Inspired by a Born Free Foundation report entitled, ‘Innocent Prisoner’, The Elephant in the Room (by Director & Editor Tariq Chow and Producer & Assistant Editor Amanda Gardner — whom I interviewed around the time of the film’s release) provides a moving look at the plight of elephants kept in solitary zoo conditions.

The elephant in the room poster

Click the image to watch the full 13-minute short film

Farewell, Farewell poor Jumbo

So what became of Jumbo after his troubles began at London Zoo? Unfortunately, not all stories have happy endings — and Jumbo’s tale is perhaps best made an example of.

In 1882, he was chained in a crate for his passage to America to join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, becoming so frightened that he ‘clanked his chains, rubbed them against himself, roared and bellowed’ for some time.

Upon arrival, he drew much interest and publicity for the so-called ‘greatest show on Earth’, courtesy of his new owner Phineas T. Barnum. But would eventually meet an untimely death after a collision with a locomotive in Canada, while being led down a train line as the circus toured the country.

Polly describes the scene; “The grotesque angles of the derailed engine and trunks, the twisted rails and wreckage, and the swarms of labouring men, gave the scene a frightening urgency, touched with the fantasy of horror by the cries of animals, glimpses of scattered paraphernalia of the circus, and the body of a huge elephant with a weeping man by its side.” 

Jumbo skeleton and skin

An entrepreneur to the end, Barnum sold Jumbo’s skin and bones for public display. His skin mounted by a taxidermist was sold to Tuft’s College, Medford, Massachusetts (where it was eventually destroyed by fire) and his bones now reside in New York’s Natural History Museum.

Perhaps most uncomfortable of all, however, was the Press reception that Barnum held to celebrate completion of the work on Jumbo’s bones and skeleton — a lavish meal was provided, where the menu included a jelly laced with powder made from a pound and a half of Jumbos tusks. Guests were also treated to a souvenir slice of inscribed ivory from the elephant.

kate on conservation logo

 Learn more about elephants

Want to know more about circus, zoo and festival elephants?

 

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  1. Pingback: Great nature blogs to follow in 2018 (Part 1) – James Common

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