Erin Sharaf is an NhRP supporter and Massachusetts resident who wrote the story below after learning that Beulah—a wild-born elephant imprisoned for decades along with elephants Karen and Minnie in a Connecticut-based traveling circus called the Commerford Zoo—collapsed and died at the Big E fair in West Springfield, MA, on Sept. 15th. Shortly after Beulah’s death, the USDA confirmed to a local news outlet that Karen had died in March of 2019 in currently unknown circumstances. Recently, we learned that at the time of Beulah’s death she had a painful infection of the uterus called Pyometra.
“I feel Beulah waited until that moment to die to bring attention to the plight of captive elephants everywhere,” Erin says. “It was the only way she had to make a statement, the one choice she could freely make for herself, no matter how many bullhooks were prodding her into submission: when and where to die.”
Dreams of an Elephant: An open letter to the community
I am Beulah the elephant.
You might have seen me at a local fair or event, or heard about my attendance.
Since my entire life was spent catering to your needs as humans, please take a few minutes to hear from me.
It’s important for you to know that I was not in your community willingly. I was born in 1967 in Burma, Asia, where I lived for four happy years in the steamy jungle with my mother and extended family, as elephants naturally do.
We traveled together, ate together, played together and even grieved together when there was a loss. We were so close and I loved our life and my family!
One day there was a loud noise, and several men barged into our jungle home. We tried to run but they were too fast for us with their vehicles and guns.
They killed my mother, tied me with ropes and chains, put me in the back of a truck, and eventually on a ship to send me across the ocean, far away from everything I knew and loved.
Young elephants normally stay with their mothers for about 16 years, almost the same as human babies.
Can you imagine how terrified I was? I was still just a baby at four years old. What had I done to these men? Why were they treating me like this?
When I arrived in your country, I was bought by something called R.W. Commerford & Sons petting zoo. They would be my “owners” and would dictate my every move for the next 48 years.
They called me Beulah. From this moment on, I would live as a slave and would never see my family or walk free in the world again.
They would hit me with something really sharp to get me to do what they wanted. This caused me a lot of pain and I lived in fear.
My body, mind, and spirit died a bit more each day. How my legs yearned to roam free again!
In the wild, we used to walk dozens of miles a day together, foraging for food, playing in the water, just enjoying being a family.
At first, I had hopes that somehow, if I did what they asked, my jailers would set me free so I could see my beloved family again. How my heart ached for my aunts, brothers and sisters and the sweet life we had.
As the decades passed, and one excruciating year turned into the next, my despair grew. With no relief in sight, my hope slowly drained away.
My heart was so heavy.
Can you imagine how you would feel if you, or your small son or daughter, were kidnapped and sent to a different continent to spend the rest of your life imprisoned? My heartache was no different than yours would be.
Sometimes, in my dreams, I would be with my family again, in my native land, free, happy, snuggling with my mom, romping through the jungle. I could almost feel my mom’s trunk caressing me, and hear the distinct rumblings and trumpeting of her voice as she told me how much she loved me and how she and my aunts would always do their best to protect me.
Only in those dreamtime moments was I free.
My captors tell you they “loved” me, but real love is thinking of the other and what would be best for them. Yes, they did have some affection for me, but our relationship was based primarily on domination and greed. I was exploited for profit.
They’ll tell you I had a “good life” and yet they were fined by the USDA over 50 times for not caring properly for me. The fines and your USDA did absolutely nothing to lessen my anguish.
When they tell you that I died doing what I loved, I can’t begin to tell you how inaccurate that statement is.
Some elephants in my situation eventually snap and harm their captors out of desperation. My temperament was different, but my lack of violence was in no way a reflection of my consent.
My acceptance of food to stay alive was in no way a testament to my happiness. My diet is meant to consist of grasses, small plants, bushes, fruit, twigs, tree bark, and roots. Here I was often fed junk food like Kool Aid, marshmallows, cotton candy, donuts, and leftovers from the vendors at the fair. This contributed to my malaise and disease.
The president of the Eastern States Exposition Gene Cassidy (owner of the Big E) had this to say about my death:
“Presenting animals to help people understand what they are fulfills an educational mission at the Eastern States… A beautiful, healthy elephant passed away in the normal course of its life … She had a very dignified transfer back to her home. She had a wonderful life and died of natural causes.”
To this I say, there was nothing in the last 48 years of my life that was natural, normal or wonderful. I was not healthy, in body, mind or spirit. Was tying my dead body up with ropes and hauling me into a truck dignified? You err again when you say my body was returned home.
My real home is in Asia. My body was returned to my captors.
Your answer belies your self-centered speciesism and poverty of compassion.
In my real home, elephant deaths are a complex and beautiful affair. We honor our loved ones, just as humans do. I was robbed of this rite of passage just as I was robbed of everything else that is natural.
Some humans tried to help, and for them I am incredibly grateful. I felt your concern and your love.
Unfortunately, I lived a life devoid of freedom, and died a prisoner in a strange land.
I dropped dead at the Big E State Fair in West Springfield, MA on September 15, 2019, being forced to stand on my aching feet all day, even at my advanced age.
Does this not insult your sense of decency? Does two minutes of mindless pleasure for you justify my entire lifetime of suffering? Does considering a sentient being who has complex emotions and a heart and brain bigger than yours “property” not seem wrong to you?
My spirit is now free but my life was a tragedy due to the myopia and narcissism of humans.
Sadly, there are many living elephants who are still in this position. Although humanity failed me, I do hold out hope that my death will not be in vain.
This essay was originally published on Erin’s blog and is republished here with permission.
How you can help:
Sign and share our petition urging the Commerford Zoo to release Minnie to a sanctuary.
Send a short, polite email to the Commerford Zoo at email@example.com, urging them to release Minnie to a sanctuary.
Urge Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Commissioner Katie Dykes to launch an investigation into Minnie’s welfare.
Complete this action alert asking Connecticut State Representative Maria Horn and Connecticut State Senator Craig Miner to publicly urge the Commerford Zoo to send Minnie to a sanctuary and to take legislative action to prohibit the keeping of elephants in captivity in Connecticut (US only; international residents copy and paste from this Google Doc).
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join or organize a rally when the Commerford Zoo comes to your area.
Help us share the story of Minnie’s plight via social media with the hashtag #FreeTheCommerfordElephants and/or #RumbleForRights.