The Elephant in Captivity

elephant in captivity

The large African elephant at the New York Zoological Park.—This animal is more than 9 feet in height. The aggregate weight of from thirty-five to forty men of averabe build would be required to offset the total of 6000 pounds which, it is estimated, this elephant would register if placed on the scales.

Elwin R. Sanborn, New York Zoological Society; © Wildlife Conservation Society

The elephants are a dying race. In the Pleistocene, and I may say Post-Pleistocene, these giant mammals were the dominant form of animal life. There were many species and, judging from the many fossils found, multitudes of individuals. Charles F. Holder in his thoughtful book, The Ivory King, expresses the conviction that the elephant could not have been extinct in Alaska more than five hundred years at the coming of Columbus. The order was clearly divided into two well-defined groups in those early days, mastodons and mammoths, the distinction being based primarily on the structure of the crowns of the molar teeth. These animals had a wide geographical distribution, being spread over all the grand divisions of the earth exclusive of Australia.

Numerous well-defined species have disappeared in recent geological times, leaving only their huge skeletons in the peat bogs and alluvial deposits to remind us of the days when they browsed on the overhanging foliage or thundered through the forest primeval, pursued by savage man with his stone spears and sling shots. A few mammoths only left their entire carcasses, including hide, hair, and stomach contents, frozen in the ice and gravels of Siberia. Of the many forms living so recently, only two, the Indian and the African elephants, survive.

Just how much use Paleolithic man or Neolithic man made of the elephant, we do not know. We find the form of the mammoth drawn and painted on the rock walls of the old caves of Europe, and even carved on a piece of his own tusk. We find his bones among the débris on the floor of these caves, or in the kitchen middens near their mouths, buried with the remains of the reindeer, bison, wolf, cave bear, horse, dog, and man himself. The ivory was carved into objects of use and ornament. It cannot be doubted that primitive man used the flesh of the mammoth for food. It is probable also that he devoted the hide and hair, and possibly the bones, to various purposes. But there is no evidence that early European man ever domesticated the mammoth.

The beginning of domestication of the elephant, like that of other domestic animals, is shrouded in obscurity. When it began, no man knows. But unlike the case of most domesticated animals, the original wild stock of the elephant still persists. Indeed, this great quadruped is not only such a slow breeder, but such an infrequent breeder in captivity, even in its own native climate, that practically all elephants in zöological gardens, in traveling menageries, and in domestication even in India, Burma, and Siam, have been obtained from the wild herds of the forest and jungle, and tamed.

Not a few baby elephants, reports say, have been born of adults with traveling menageries in this country. Most of these reports are fabrications. But I know of two well-authenticated births occurring here; in neither case was the mother pregnant when imported. The first of these was in Philadelphia, at the winter quarters of the old Bailey, Scott, and Hutchinson show, in 1880. P. T. Barnum came to Philadelphia to see the baby and offered the owners a goodly sum for this feature attraction, but they only laughed at him. However, Mr. Barnum was not a man to be turned from his purpose and he proposed that the two shows be united. This suggestion proved acceptable and was the beginning of the Barnum and Bailey circus. The baby was named Columbia and lived for many years in the circus menagerie. Although her mother, Hebe, commonly known about the show as Babe, was one of the best-natured elephants I ever knew, the daughter grew meaner and meaner as she got older, until in 1905 or 1906 she had to be killed. Mr. Bates, who was assistant superintendent of elephants for a long period of years, told me she inherited her vicious disposition from her sire. The other baby was born at the Barnum and Bailey winter quarters at Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1882. He was named Bridgeport and was burned up in the fire in 1887 that destroyed much of the splendid menagerie of Barnum and Bailey.

It is doubtful whether any elephant other than the Indian has been domesticated. The elephants that Hannibal brought against Rome may have been the African. Unfortunately no drawing or other picture has been found to throw light in the subject. From what we know of the 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. African elephant of today, however, it seems extremely doubtful if this species could be sufficiently subjugated to be of any use in warfare. And if Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, could bring Indian elephants to Greece, why could not Hannibal bring them to Carthage?

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