Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Problems with Our Elephants (1)

(for Quincey, who's had the blues this week)

- and is still an ongoing concern at our zoo. While there have been no major “incidents” since Mumba, both of the remaining animals show clear signs of continued abnormality.
I will attempt to summarise the situation as it has played out.
We have (or had) three elephants here, all of them Asiatic/Elephas maximus.
• The large male mentioned earlier (“Mumba”, E. m. indicus) who was thought to be about 35 years old. Purchased from Bangalore.
• A female (“Gita”, E. m. indicus), now 27 years old. This animal suffered an injury to her front left leg in her infancy and limps. Purchased from Tambour & Sulliven, Bangkok.
Mumba and Gita were acquired in 1993 with hopes to form a mating pair; no success.
• A younger and much smaller male, 9 years old (“Teeny”, E. m. sumtranus) acquired in 2004 from a zoo in Cambodia deemed inhumane / unable to care for him.


Started 6 weeks ago. Elephants exhibited tendency to stand at the bars of the enclosure, facing out (i.e. “staring” at patrons). Noted but not formally reported.
At ~ same time Brent Haskill (custodial staff) recalls hearing voices, although didn’t ascribe these to the animals and didn’t report. Haskill recalls “loud voices, nearby” as he cleaned, the now-familiar “Pum” sound.
~1 week later elephants developed eye problems. Custodial staff / zoo patrons turning their backs on the elephants would sometimes turn back to find the animals looking at them fixedly and w/ the animals’ eyes much larger and artificial-seeming.
These transformations at first very short lived, “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t”, although later could be sustained for a minute or longer.
No photographic record of this, despite numerous attempts.
The large eyes are described as being “doll like”, round, unlidded, and seemingly superimposed over the face, no irises but large black “pupils” with “sort of a wedge missing”. Custodial staff have described the eyes as being like buttons, being like those of a toy or “old-fashioned cartoon character”, or as “Clockwork Orange without the lashes”.

No action taken on initial reports (these were misunderstood to be jokes / exaggerations). However I have now seen this for myself and can confirm it is very strange / disturbing, and comparisons with cartoons are spot-on.

The “new eyes” when they appear seem made of hard material such as plastic or porcelain, but not sure.
Diagnosis made difficult at first as elephants would not “perform” for vet.

Three weeks ago junior custodian Tanya Pilrig tendered notice. Tanya came direct from cleaning elephant enclosure, was visibly upset.
Received report from Tanya during exit interview the next day:

I was in there with Mumba, the others were in the back cage. And this voice keeps going: ‘Pum, pum-pum’, like someone singing almost. I thought I was imagining it. But then I turn around and Gita and Teeny are up at the door and they both have big eyes.
And I turn to Mumba and he has big eyes too, and then he just sits back on his bum and has his hoofs in the air and he’s watching me.
So I don’t know what to do, so I turn off the hose and I’m going to run for it, like I’m really freaking out. And then Mumba’s smiling at me! He’s got big teeth, like human teeth, or like cartoon teeth. And he says: ‘PUM’. Really loud. And the others go ‘Pum-pum!’, like they’re joining in.
And then Mumba has a moustache and this little hat on his head. And I don’t know where it came from but there’s a table with all this shit on it, a tea pot and tea cups. And he’s holding the teapot, going ‘PUM-PUM’ with a pipe in his mouth, like he’s asking do I want tea. I just lost it. I dropped everything and ran.
There is no way you will ever get me back into that place.

This type of problem witnessed on later occasions, different variations but always ending w/ appearance of table & tea pot. Most pronounced with Mumba, who staff have witnessed w/ brown or tan moustache & wearing hat or waistcoat.
Vet has since witnessed this and has a theory that the animals are “attempting to develop & maintain human characteristics with the intention of tricking / persuading us into their release”.
Zoo staff consider this theory “possible but unlikely”.
They wish to stress that the eyes, teeth (& Mumba’s moustache) exhibited are in no way convincing or reassuring. Atmosphere created by these changes described as “bizarre” / “profoundly disturbing”, & having “the qualities of a bad dream or nightmare”.

Vet has speculated situation might change/improve if someone were to accept the offer of tea but no volunteers.


Elephants began speaking words in English approx two weeks ago. 1st instance of this witnessed by Tom Lockhart (who handed in resignation but was persuaded to stay on swapped shifts). Tom made following statement:

I was dumping feed in the main enclosure, and Teeny came running in from the back cage with the big eyes, and he was shouting “I AM A - I AM A - I AM A -”
He had a high pitched voice, like a little kid. He ran straight at me.
I don’t think he was trying to antagonise me. I think he was just happy it was feeding time. But it scared me.

Over the past 2 weeks have had more reports of spoken English, as follows. NB: reports agree that Teeny speaks in voice of a male child, Gita has a “strident female voice”, and Mumba’s voice was “deep and calm” or “a mellow baritone”.

“WHAT-HO, WHAT-HO” – Mumba, on 12 July.
“CORN ON THE COB” – Teeny, 14 July (again @ feeding time, although NB there was no corn in his feed)
“I GUARANTEE THAT YOU WILL NOT” – Mumba, 14 July (NB June Carter believes in this case she overheard Mumba "talking to himself in his cage")

(Cont. overleaf)


  1. Thank you for writing a story about an elephant called Teeny to cheer me up. You were true to your word.

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