Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Monday, December 15, 2008

An Elephant Invades Sixteen Acres

Photo: In 1968, Morganetta was the “anchor” for Western New England College sophomores in their annual tug-of-war battle with freshmen. With her “help,” the sophomores (the Class of 71) won. The elephant returned to Sixteen Acres for the neighborhood’s Fourth of July parades in the 1970s, which proceeded down Wilbraham road, from the college’s parking lot to Sixteen Acres Center, where a furious Morganetta frightened me nearly to death in 1975. She appreciated her road trips, but her living conditions sparked a brouhaha in Springfield in 1979 when the Humane Society demanded her transfer to a better zoo. Did she stay or did she go?

JULY 4, 1975

The raging elephant prepared to charge me. She reared up, raised her trunk, threw her front legs upward, and trumpeted in anger—and I did some serious backpedaling. After all, she wasn’t in her cage at the Forest Park Zoo. We were in Greenleaf Park, a baseball field, and there was no fence between us.

Maybe Morganetta was more than just a little cranky and tired—she had just finished walking the mile-long Sixteen Acres Fourth of July Parade. One thing was for sure: she certainly wasn’t in the mood to be prodded into her trailer by her keeper.

In fact, she was downright pissed! And I almost pissed myself when she lunged. But no, she didn’t trample me or tear her trainer limb from limb. In fact, she suddenly just chilled out, and I realized she was indeed going into her trailer peaceably. No more outbursts. I would survive.

Looking back, I wouldn’t say that I was traumatized. I put the incident in the category of one of those milliseconds of pure terror that everyone experiences—like almost getting in a car accident before realizing you’re not going to crash after all.

True, not every 12-year-old faces what he thinks is an imminent elephant attack. But I probably deserved it.

About half an hour earlier, at the intersection of Wilbraham Road and Maebeth Street, I had dared my friend, Al Hostetter, to light up one of those little round superball-sized smoke bombs and roll it into the parade. And he took me up on my dare. I had “marched” in earlier parades in uniform with my teammates from the Sixteen Acres Lions little league team, but in 1975 I had “defected” to another team: the St. George Olympians. So I wasn’t in the parade that year, but I was going to have my fun anyway. I thought that it would be a howl to bowl a smoke bomb at my former teammates. I lost my nerve, but Al was more than happy to do the dastardly deed.

“Now!” I said. Al flicked his Bic and rolled the smoke bomb, which billowed a thick yellow cloud and was soon being kicked around by my old team, desperately trying to boot the bomb to the curb.

We thought that was hilarious, but a moment later we were absolutely screaming with laughter when Morganetta, right behind the team, became alarmed by the smoke. As the trainer tried to calm her down, the elephant took a huge shit in the middle of the street, and the rest of the marchers had to walk around the pile. The parade parted like the Red Sea.

Granted, elephants have great memories, and I reckon Morganetta, retiring to her trailer, saw me and decided to scare the crap out of me after we scared the crap out of her.

Morganetta was always a bit mischievous, stealing my little brother’s mitten off his hand once. (We had to get her keeper to retrieve it.) She also escaped as a calf and was captured on the corner of Dickinson Street and Trafton Road. But her antics sometimes backfired on her—there was the time she endured a rectal exam because her keeper thought she had swallowed her leg chain and padlock, but it was later found hidden in a pile of hay.

Photo: Morganetta is pictured as a five-year-old in 1969. Note her controversial leg chain. Yours truly is bravely facing the elephant (Click on the photo to enlarge): I’m the kid in the striped shirt behind the pole on Morganetta’s immediate left. My brother is standing on the far left with a bag of peanuts and wearing a nearly identical striped shirt.

Morganetta was named after Morgan O’Connell, who had campaigned to add an elephant to the Forest Park Zoo. She was brought to Springfield from Thailand in 1964 as an infant, when the 300-pound pachyderm’s diet consisted of 14 quarts of grain, 15 pounds of hay, and 10 pounds of chopped fruits and vegetables. Tethered much of her life by a short chain tied around her leg, she loved the chance to get out and roam, performing in the Shrine Circus and walking in the Sixteen Acres and Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Photo: Morganetta marches in a parade on Sumner Avenue in 1967.

The Shriners, who had sponsored Morganetta’s flight from Thailand and ride from Logan Airport, once brought her into a bar on High Street in Holyoke after one of the parades. For some reason, they couldn’t get her out the door she came in, so the picture window of the bar had to be taken out to remove her.

When Morganetta was young, her keeper used to take her for walks around the X neighborhood, and he even brought her up on porches to greet admirers. According to local lore, she was also led into the former Lancer Cafe (now Coconuts). But the U.S. Humane Society complained about her living conditions, including the short chain. The zoo responded by building a larger outside cage with a moat, a pool, and a strong fence, and her fans rejoiced at the fact that she could roam free in the warm months. Nonetheless, when she was 15, the Humane Society persisted, pointing out that she was still chained inside during the winter, and suggesting that she be transferred to a zoo that was better suited to handle her.

I remember the big debate. Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle thought the controversy was quite amusing, taking great pains to ridicule Springfield as a hick town, and writing that Morganetta was likely not an elephant at all, but a large pig that us yokels just think is an elephant.

Her keeper (pictured with Morganetta below) weighed in, saying it would be cruel to separate Morganetta and him by three thousand miles, but the Parks Department did just that, shipping her to the Los Angeles Zoo. She died seven months later—of a broken heart, many insisted.

Some, the Boston Globe included, romantically—and mistakenly—believe that Springfield native Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, modeled the elephant in his children’s book Horton Hears a Who after Morganetta, but it was written in 1957, long before she was born.

Still, her legacy continues to live long after her death, as a costumed mascot at Forest Park—minus the leg chain, of course.


Brooks said...

Morganetta - who could forget her. I too visited her as a little girl - often. She was my favorite at Forest Park....I would feed her peanuts and I remember her beautiful eyes and long lashes. I have always wondered what happened to her....I read that elephants live to 70 years and was hoping to find her and visit her again...but came across your blog - and was thrilled to see the beautiful photos of her but sad at the same time to learn of her fate. So sad. Thank you so much for remembering her and having this blog as a tribute to one of God's most beautiful creatures.


Hell's Acres said...

Thanks for the comment, Kim.

Despite what I wrote, I don't think Morganetta's final phase of life was that sad. I seem to remember reading that she thrived in her California zoo, and that she was the "dominant female" in an enclosure of all female elephants.

Hell's Acres said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I remember growing up in sixteen acres in Springfield, Ma and my parents bringing us all the time to Forest Park Zoo.There were monkeys,tons of deer,,Snowball the polar bear and my favorite Morganetta..I would always sneak a bunch of peanuts and apples from my house and stay and feed her and vist while we were there..although it was cruel and sad that she was chained in her home she seemed content & happy everytime I went to visit..It was a sad day when she passed away..I remember going and seeing her in te parades etc...she truely was beautiful...Mary Rodowicz

Hell's Acres said...

Thanks for reading, Mary. You can read Snowball the Polar Bear's story here: http://hellsacres.blogspot.com/2009/02/when-zoo-animals-attack-part-i.html.

Anonymous said...

The trainer/keeper of Morganetta was Charlie Coleman, my uncle. Morganetta loved my Uncle Charlie. I was privileged to spend time with my Uncle and Morganetta and witness this incredible bond. Morganetta did, indeed, die of a broken heart when she was separated from her keeper, Charlie.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog! I was researching Forest Park Zoo and found this. I loved Morganetta, I was 2 years old when she came from Thailand. I think because of her, I developed a lifelong love of elephants! Love these pictures of her. I wish they had never moved her so she would have lived longer. Julia Shawn Clark

Hell's Acres said...

Hi Julia,

Thanks for reading. I have two other entries on Forest Park Zoo animals if you check the contents column on the right. Also, from what I hear, they've opened up the old monkey house for farmer's markets on the weekend. I'll have to check it out. Sources say there is no trace of the infamous monkey house aroma.

Marla said...

Hi...I'm so glad I found your blog. Been doing a lot of reminiscing about my hometown of Springfield lately. I lived on Texel Dr. and visited Forest Park all the time. Morganetta was my absolute favorite, along with Snowball. I also loved the monkey house when they also kept those big cats in there too. I was actually there the day Morganetta escaped and was roaming around the neighborhood. I was standing with friends on the corner of Dickinson and Texel and she turned around and started coming our way. We were freaking out. Good memories though!

Hell's Acres said...

Hi Marla,

Thanks for commenting. I had always heard that Morganetta had escaped and wandered over to the Dickinson/Trafton Road area, but all I could find in the newspaper archives was her brief escape in which she never left the park.

Anyone else a witness to Morganetta's wandering to the Dickinson/Trafton/Texel?

Deb SZ said...

I just got done reading "Leaving Time" by bestselling author Jodi Picoult. Her impression on the conditions regarding Morganetta and her time at the Forest Park Zoo differ greatly from what I am reading here and also what led Morganetta to be moved. Any elephant lover should give this book a look, if not a read. The author is from New Hampshire and visited Morganetta as a child,ultimately resulting in Morganetta's relocation to Los Angeles.

Hell's Acres said...

Hi Deb,

Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I do write more about Morganetta's deplorable living conditions in this post: http://hellsacres.blogspot.com/2012/02/when-forest-park-zoo-animals-attack.html. I'm not quite sure that her letter to the mayor resulted in Morganetta's relocation. There was talk by many about moving her for some time, and Picoult's book is a work of fiction--she reported that Morganetta had only one eye. From what I remember, she had two. Picoult was probably using the story of Snowball the polar bear (who lost an eye to a police bullet) to make her story more compelling. Maybe her letter to the mayor was the tipping point. Who knows? Thanks again. I'll have to read this book!

Unknown said...

She died a few months after getting there