Shirley the Elephant: An Unlikely Lola Lady

In Clinton Downing, Louisiana Ladies by Lola Magazine

They say big things come in small packages, but that is not altogether true. Often very wonderful things come in big packages. The elephant is the largest living land mammal. Like its body weight, this creature has tons of meaningful insight to share with us. She speaks to us in terms of sensitivity, loyalty, and determination. The elephant is a superior guide when we are on a journey that requires our patience and devotion.

As a child, we all dreamed of joining the circus. Under that “Big Top,” we were amazed at the majestic pachyderms that appeared larger than life. Many of us also saw the 1941 Disney animated classic, “Dumbo,” based on the then-unpublished children’s book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. It was as story that gracefully explored the effects of cruelty. It was a story of triumph in embracing our differences. It was a story that touched on the cruel world of bullying that continues today.

Now some 79 years later, cinematic genius Tim Burton has brought this children’s classic back to the big screen with a CGI and live action adaption. This film ironically comes one year after the smash “The Greatest Showman,” based on the life of entertainment visionary P.T. Barnum and his circus. It would also come two years after that very circus would bring its last curtain call after 150 years of entertaining the masses under the scrutiny of the treatment of elephants and other animals used for performances.

I happened to attend one of the last shows of this legendary circus. Watching the spectacle as an adult didn’t resonate the same as it did as a child. While I am still young at heart and hope I never totally grow up, knowing the back story of the elephants in such captivity tugged at my heart. It was disheartening to see such a display. It did transcend me back to 1976 when I first saw Shirley.

Shirley is a kind-hearted Asian elephant who has defied every odd in her hard life once filled with misery and struggle. She was born in Sumatra, south Asia, back in 1948. She is an ex-circus elephant. At the tender age of 7, she was captured in the wilds of Asia and sold to Dori Miller, owner of Carson and Barnes and Kelly Miller circuses.

For the next 24 years, Shirley performed with them. Although it was a norm at the time, we now know that circus elephants generally experience indescribable suffering throughout their career.

As sensitive, intelligent creatures, the circus lifestyle can be horrifically damaging. Many elephants who have spent long times performing show symptoms of depression, aggression, and PTSD as a result of their confinement and isolation. Shirley is such an elephant who was experiencing such a living death.

In 1958, while the Kelly-Miller Circus was traveling through Cuba, Fidel Castro seized power. Shirley and the entire circus were held captive by Castro’s forces for several weeks before finally being released.

In 1963, the circus traveled by ship to Nova Scotia and was docked at Yarmouth Harbor when a fire broke out in the engine room. This incident caused the ship to sink, killing two animals on board. Shirley was rescued, but not before sustaining severe burns on her back and legs. Today she is missing a large section of her right ear as a result of the fire and has several scars on her back, side, and feet.

At the age of 30, while performing for the Lewis Brothers Circus, Shirley was attacked by another elephant. Her right hind leg was broken. It healed poorly and is the cause of her limp. After one year performing in the circus, Shirley was retired in 1978.

At the age of 7, I was there for that very retirement. I remember entering under a massive red-and-white circus tent with my sister and paternal grandparents. I can still perceive that image in my head like it was yesterday. It was like I was living in the movies. Sawdust was under our feet as well walked to the bleacher seating. The aroma of roasted peanuts illumed the air. With cotton candy in hand, we watched the clowns, aerialists, animals and their trainers take over the three rings. It was pure amazement. Aerialists were high in the air above us only separated by a net from the ground. Lions and tigers were jumping through rings of fire. It was everything I had seen in the “Greatest Show on Earth” in its restored form.

At the close of the show’s finale, the ringmaster asked for silence. A larger than life tiered cake was rolled out and placed on a big drum by a few clowns. At that point, Shirley entered the tent on the grounds of Bernstein Park. This was her bon voyage from the center ring that she has called home for more than two decades. She was finally only steps away from her next destination that she would call home for another 22 years of her life.

Shirley had now found a more calming lifestyle as an exhibit at Monroe’s Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo. She would call the zoo her home for those 22 years as the sole elephant. While it was not as strenuous as the circus, it was still a lonely life. During this time, Shirley developed a strong bond with her caretaker, Solomon James. Day in and day out, Shirley and Solomon were together for all those years at the zoo. Despite all his and the zoo’s best intentions, it became apparent that Shirley needed a place to roam more freely for the remainder of her life. She was now 48. She was in what were expected to be the final years of her life.

On July 6, 1999, Shirley found a freedom of sorts. She was transferred from the zoo to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Shirley would not make this 14-hour journey into the unknown alone.

Accompanying her on this long journey from Louisiana to Tennessee was her best friend, Solomon. It was a sentimental journey as this would be their final hours together after forming a bond over two decades.

Upon arrival to the sanctuary, mixed emotions between James and Shirley were evident. They were ending a chapter of her life as she was to begin another. At the time she arrived, she was the fourth elephant to become a resident of the sanctuary. What was thought to be an uncertain response for her change of location took a most unexpected turn. One of the elephants, Tara, would be at the barn weighting. It was the first time in two decades that she had been in contact with another elephant. It was an equally emotional time as Solomon removed her chain for the last time and gave her a final bath. As tears fell from his eyes, he knew this would be that bittersweet moment in his life.

Several days into her stay at the sanctuary, Shirley would encounter an elephant named Jenny. Their reactions to one another were mesmerizing. It was an instant connection. It was though a familiarity could be sensed in their mannerisms. It was unlike anything the sanctuary staff had seen. It was magical. The two elephants nearly bent the bars of their barn stalls to be near one another.

As it would turn out, Shirley and Jenny had performed in the circus together 24 years earlier. These two trumpeted as they bumped their ample-sized bodies together in a typical gesture of affectionate camaraderie. They created an instant, mother and daughter-like bond. Jenny had also sustained a leg injury and weathered abuse in the circus. No longer economically beneficial to the circus, Jenny was soon dumped at a shelter for cats and dogs before being relocated to the sanctuary through the assistance of a devout animal activist. They roamed daily side by side on the vast terrain.

Sadly, it was only seven years before Jenny’s previous injury would cause her to become very ill. She eventually became too weak to cover the vast distance they once roamed. Being the ultimate “mother,” Shirley led Jenny to a valley and lay her down on a soft underbrush. As Jenny shifted comfortably, Shirley stayed with her day and night, even using her trunk to help her change position. Two other elephants, Tara and Bunny, would join in this vigil and the four elephants trumpeted consolingly for 3 hours. They were celebrating her amazing life. When the sun rose the next morning, Shirley could no longer bear to watch her friend suffer. She left the scene to mourn the eminent death of Jenny. That night Jenny died as her two other friends stayed with her until daybreak.

Shirley’s mourning was real and evident in her appearance. Her trunk dragged the ground, her shoulders slumped and she was unable to open her eyes completely. She could not eat and refused to trumpet. She was hurting and filled with sorrow. It had taken years for them to reunite and now she was gone forever.

Almost 13 years since Jenny’s passing, Shirley has become the grandmother of the herd roaming the Asian habitat. Her journey to the habitat became a 12-minute film for National Geographic and PBS’s Nature Series. It was part of “The Urban Elephant,” a project from 2000 that won two Emmy awards and broke hearts everywhere. This story of her life can be found on the Argo Films YouTube Channel, but I warn you to have some tissues in hand.

Last year, Shirley celebrated her 70th birthday at the sanctuary. Her longtime friend, Solomon James, made that same journey he had made 20 years ago for the first time to celebrate this joyous occasion. That bond was once again evident. It was an emotional moment for them both and a happy reunion.

In 2018, Shirley’s story was published as a children’s book, “Shirley’s Story: The Heart Always Remembers,” by author Mary Helen Blanchard and illustrator, Sue Brunner. Both longtime educators teamed up to bring this incredible story to life on page. It was their intention to enlighten, entertain and educate young minds on a magnificent mammal’s life. Having taken her children and classmates to see Shirley during her days at the zoo, Mary Helen knew it was an important story to tell when Shirley made newspaper headlines for her transition to the sanctuary.

It is available at www.shirleytheelephantstory.com.

As July approaches and Shirley is about to celebrate her 71st birthday, she remains the oldest elephant living at the sanctuary. She is also the 3rd oldest elephant living in North America. Shirley’s journey can be followed via e-camera with live feeds at www.elephants.com. Donations can also be made for her continued care on the site as well. It’s a monthly gift I’ve made as a routine in my life.

Symbolically, the elephant’s meaning deals primary with strength, honor, stability and tenacity. The elephant is a symbol of good fortune, luck and protection. We can gather more symbolic meaning of the elephant by observing it in nature. Specifically, their symbol of responsibility because they take great care of their offspring as well as their elders.

Over the span of her seven decades on Earth, Shirley has endured a journey that many of us are blessed to not have lived. Shirley’s story will also resonate with those who have journeyed through life enduring their hardships, the loss of loved ones, and battles with depression and addiction. Shirley symbolizes hope. Shirley teaches us to never give in when life is at its worst. Shirley enlightens us with inspiration that we may all find that sanctuary of solace. Shirley shows us that with strength, love and perseverance, we can trumpet toward the best days of our lives.