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.
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.
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. Suess, 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.