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Book Review: Michael Daly’s “Topsy”

By Russell Tenofsky


Michael Daly’s new book Topsy tells the harrowing story of the life and times of one of the world’s most famous elephants. From being brutally stolen from her mother in the wild to being electrocuted by Thomas Edison for murder, Topsy’s life was one of extreme sadness and oppression. And it’s not very different from how elephants are brought into captivity today.

It began around 1875 when she was ripped from her herd in Asia. An excerpt from the book describes just what it was like for the young Topsy and her herd when the humans came to steal her away.

The hunters began by using gunshots and fires and chopping down trees to create mayhem and stress for the elephants, and to drive them into smaller and smaller areas.

Daly writes:

After maybe a fortnight would have come the morning when the shouts and gunshots and fire erupted simultaneously from every direction but one, forcing the elephants to flee the lone way open to them. The group would have been driven to a fifty-yard space between two opposing walls made with felled trees. The elephants may have sensed danger ahead and balked at continuing, but the terror was now almost right upon them and they would have proceeded on, a gray and thundering storm, the matriarch still in the lead, but the wisdom born of centuries suddenly for naught.

Eventually the elephants were corralled on all sides by felled trees and men with guns and spears. Twelve-foot walls were erected and four-yard gaps were dug out, making escape impossible. The little baby Topsy and her mother were trapped.

The baby would have been sheltered under the mother as the adults formed a protective circle, facing outward. Most likely, they would have just been left there for several days without food or water. As the baby grew hungry, she would have discovered that captured mothers initially run dry of milk. Her plaintive cries and those of any other calves would likely have been joined by the adult elephants’ signal of apprehension and uncertainty, made by rapping the end of the trunk on the ground while exhaling sharply, a sound a nineteenth-century catcher compared to “a large sheet of tin rapidly doubled.”

To enhance the oppression and humiliation, just as ranchers ride horses to separate a calf from her mother, a pair of hunters road “kookies,” elephants who were already “trained,” to rope the baby elephant and steal her away from her mother.

The mahouts would have steered pairs of kookies so as to separate a grown elephant from the herd, squeezing in on either side. The two ropers would have slipped down, first slipping a rope hobble around the wild elephant’s rear legs, then looping a rope around her neck. The captors then would have used the ropes and the power of the kookies to drag a captive out of the stockade and into the forest, where she would be tied to a tree. The captives who struggled would have been liable to be beaten and stuck with spears. The unmanageable ones, particularly any adult males who happened to be with the herd at the moment of capture, were sometimes killed right then and there.

The hunters did not need to use “kookies” or rope to capture young Topsy. In an absolutely heartbreaking excerpt, Daly describes why:

When it came the mother’s turn to be straddled and hobbled, the captors would not have needed to bother with the baby. She would have come along wherever the mother was dragged. No rope was required to retain a baby after the mother was tethered to a tree.

Either in the forest or after the extended march to a market town, the baby and the mother would have been forcibly separated. The mother would have been kept in restraints, for the captors otherwise would have had to kill her as the baby was pulled away, vainly struggling and screaming, ever more desperate as the distance between them grew.

This was just the beginning of Topsy’s harassment and oppression by humans. She was brought to the United States, where she first “belonged” to a circus in Philadelphia, PA, and then moved to Luna Park, on Coney Island, NY.

Topsy’s life came to a turbulent ending when Thomas Edison electrocuted her for the crime of killing three men, and then released the film of her execution, Electrocuting an Elephant.

Topsy and the new documentary Blackfish both depict what happens when babies are violently stolen from their mothers. The pain and trauma last a lifetime for the baby, her mother, and the entire family. The suffering and distress that Topsy experienced led her to kill three people and to be electrocuted as part of yet another spectacle.

Tilikum, the “star” of Blackfish, who was captured in a remarkably similar way to Topsy, torn from his mother and family off the coast of Iceland, has also killed three people in an all too predictable life of captivity, harassment, bullying, oppression and isolation.

Future lawsuits by the Nonhuman Rights Project will be helping to bring this kind of oppression to an end, once and for all.

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