Shirley the Elephant

Shirley Asian Elephant at the Elephant Sanctuary

photo from The Elephant Sanctuary website

Shirley now lives at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennesse, United States. Her home is a wide expanse of rolling greens, dense woods, and streams, with the companionship of other elephants, and one she knew from over 25 years ago. But this isn’t how her life has always been.

This is the story of Shirley, as we know, as pieced together by the sanctuary from zoo and circus owners. Her story is moving, not unlike that of so many elephants we have absconded into society, in the name of entertainment and education. I am sure Shirley gave every boy and girl “the greatest show on earth”, such awe that would send any child dreaming of the wild and of endless possibility. But knowing what we know now about the training methods used in the circus, I hope what Shirley faced for most of her life will be in the past for the future.

This is, however, about Shirley, and not the cons against zoos and circuses, but to know Shirley a little, to remember. Above all, to see Shirley, as an elephant, free.  A symbol of hope and love. And a survivor. 

From the Wild
The story of Shirley began in 1948, in Sumatra. Shirley is an Asian elephant, born wild. In 1953, with her capture and sale to a circus, nothing would be the same again. The events stringing together her life with humans are incredulous. The fact that she survived it, still with a heart of love, is the real story. The one that really matters.

For over 25 years Shirley would work in the circus, entertaining audiences from around the world. I’m sure she’s “seen” more places in the US than most Americans and certainly has participated in her share of history. She was in Cuba when Castro seized power and was even held captive for a short time, along with the rest of the circus

In 1963, Shirley made quite an impact on the townspeople of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  After being at sea for three weeks, Shirley was aboard the docked circus ship when a fire broke out in the engine room. The sight of a menagerie of wild and exotic animals being rescued and walking along the wharf, with a smoking and sinking ship in the background, must have been surreal.

That ill-fated summer tour ended with the fire but Shirley’s ordeal did not. Along with the other animals, she was being transported back to the circus home base in Florida. The trailer with the elephants crashed and Shirley was the only of the three to survive that road accident. 

1975 marked the beginning of the end with the circus for Shirley. But for this she endured an attack by another circus elephant and for the rest of her life, a broken leg that never healed. Shirley would work for another two years before moving to the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo. Here she would spend the next 22 years, alone without the companionship of another elephant. And still chained.

A Sanctuary and A Reunion
Shirley was 51 when she went to the Elephant Sanctuary in 1999. She is still there today. 

Her arrival at the sanctuary is captured by PBS in the documentary “Nature” (Part 1 and Part 2). The moment her trunk touched her first elephant (Tarra) was both heartwarming and heartwrenching, to know that this is what she had missed for over two decades, to know that we humans did this to her. At least now, she was free – no more chains and no more bullhooks. She can roam the open fields and woods, like she was meant to, had her life not been interrupted.

The meetings with the other two resident elephants continued into the nightfall when the last elephant returned to the barn. The last to come in was Jenny, an elephant Shirley had known years before. They were so desperate to be close that they bent the steel bars separating them. It was amazing to watch their reunion, their trunks tenderly touching each other’s ears and body, an act of remembrance and joy.

It’s hard to fathom their feelings, without tears. To have lived such long years without friendship and companionship is akin to cruelty for elephants who live in herds, along with all their female relatives, from grandmothers to their nieces. How tenuous their existence must have felt, being alone, in an unnatural habitat, living an unnatural life.

Shirley and Jenny from PBS' Nature

Photo from the video Nature by PBS

Two elephants in streambed

Photo from PBS' documentary Nature

As we all know, elephants never forget.  Shirley has endured far more than she should have, probably more than some could have. A haggard-looking elephant with a bum leg, a large section missing from her right ear, and scars, Shirley’s life shows physically on her body. We will never really know what she has seen or what she yearns for. I wonder what of the wilds of Sumatra she remembers.  I just hope that Shirley can at last have something good about humans to remember.  

Two elephants roaming in the fields

Photo from PBS' Nature

Shirley and Jenny would have many more years together, roaming the hills together, trunk in trunk, their mother-daughter bond as strong as ever. For them, the sanctuary is a safe place. It may not be Sumatra or even a wild tropical jungle but these elephants can live outside, under the stars, in nature, with feet in the earth and never again in chains. Here, the elephants finally have their own herd.

In another life, Shirley and Jenny could have been from the same herd, both from Sumatra. They certainly lived in similarly harsh environments and deplorable conditions as circus elephants, subjected to cruel training methods, both crippled and scarred. But to know them only in that context is to disrespect them. They brought joy and love to those who knew them, and to the elephants at the sanctuary.

Through the stories told of them, Shirley and Jenny continue to touch the hearts of children and adults alike and fill our spirit with hope. Through them, we learn more about ourselves and our humanity, and the need to do better. The desire to be better.

Update on Shirley and Jenny
The Elephant Sanctuary


One thought on “Shirley the Elephant

  1. hey, this is a realy cool story! We represent which has just rolled out plans for the largest animals sanctuary in Europe. They will be hosting rescued elephants there which works out well for the elephants and also for the children which want to learn about them.

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