When elephant trainer Buckles Woodcock was first sent by John Cuneo Jr. (who later established the Hawthorn Corporation, the equivalent of an elephant’s worst nightmare) to judge the viability of a young elephant named Popsicle for the rigorous life of a circus elephant he sent word that she looked like an elephant he would be able to train.
At age 10 Popsicle had already lived at Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon, Massachusetts for six years & for some unknown reason (early records of the Indian elephant were never found) proprietor Danny Southwick decided to sell her. So against convention at the time, (among many elephant trainers) to acquire elephants not from zoos (those elephants were seen as having lived too sedentary a life to be able to handle “the rigors of the road” or “master the complexity of circus tricks”) but from other circuses or directly “off the boat from other dealers”, Woodcock gave the go ahead to acquire “Popsy” from Danny Southwick.
So in exchange (or partly so) for “a hippopotamus named Bubbles” John Cuneo Jr. found himself the new owner of an adolescent elephant named Popsicle. Now just why the elephant trainer immediately changed her name to Billie was never explained. (It was never wise to keep the moniker of a “problem elephant**,” Woodcock had always maintained.) But it became evident that Woodcock had a need to erase the past of Popsicle, he obviously “determined her to be difficult,” thus the arrival of “Billie” to the Ruskin, Florida training grounds. And while Popsicle’s life may have been dreadful as a cloistered & sedentary zoo elephant, this pachyderm would never have wanted to know just how much more dire (as a traveling circus elephant) her life would become.
**For those humans whose livelihood was made off the backs of elephants do they never think that these “problem elephants” were the direct result of their cruel actions to begin with? Elephants were born to be elephants. Need we say more?
“Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top” by Carol Bradley is the story of this unflinching elephant. It tells of the years Billie spent as a member of the “Hawthorn Five***”. It tells of the abuse that Billie had to endure. And it tells of those kind humans who came to Billie’s rescue, and who were willing & able to save the elephant much, much sooner, had they been allowed. (It was bureaucracy that painfully prolonged the process.) But the book is so much more. For interspersed with Billie’s story is a rich history of elephants, some we were already familiar with, & some we have come to know through Bradley. Elephants who were Billie’s contemporaries, fellow circus & performing elephants; and those elephants who would be committed to zoos, thrust into a life they would never understand.
***The Hawthorn Five: Billie, Siam, Delhi, Bombay, Joyce (Billie joined at age 11 when she replaced Sherma, who had killed a man. Sherma was the sister of Joyce. “Billie was the youngest of the group and by far, the least experienced.”) The Original Hawthorn Five : the Hamid – Morton Circus performing elephants, circa 1949, included Siam, Delhi, Bombay, Mysore & Calcutta. They were trained by Louis Reed. Siam died in 1973. She was replaced by Tess. The Hawthorn Five then became Billie, Tess, Delhi, Bombay, Joyce. (p. 41-47)
If you love elephants & care about their welfare in any way you must read this book. The public has been led to believe that the conditions in which performing / circus & zoo elephants are kept are stellar and humane. But take a look behind those closed doors; peek behind those big top curtains and dare to wander into those areas where the public is not allowed. This is where the abuse of our elephants takes place (striking or beating elephants with bullhooks), in secrecy, away from the crowd. (And now this makes one wonder; just how did baby elephants come to be called “punks,” anyway? As throughout time this term has been frequently used among elephant trainers in the circus.) (p. 29)
To have knowledge is to have power and “Last Chain on Billie” will provide the education that all elephant lovers & elephant advocates need to validate what they have instinctively felt all along. Use this well researched book as a primer, a reference, a wake-up call. Let it serve as cry from all of our elephants of their need for help. And though Ringling may have recently retired their circus elephants (to another cruel existence****, one might add) there are many small circuses still in existence that harbor elephants. There are also many captive performing elephants that are as desperate as Billie was to be saved.
****Read about Ringling’s Center For Elephant Conservation in Florida which labels itself a “sanctuary” & it will leave one boiling mad (at the deception, yet again). Find this in Chapter 17 : Spotlight on Abuse. And on p. 218 learn just how baby elephants are treated at this “sanctuary”. (Read also: Ringling….Ends 145 Year Tradition By Sending Their Last 11 Performing Elephants Into Early Retirement….Part 1)
Billie has been cared for by The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee since she was rescued the morning of 8 February 2006 on her “Caravan to Freedom” (Chapter 14 p. 167) and will never have to face the hand of a cruel human ever again. Billie is free now from the metal chain that was bound to her leg for all of those years. She is working on rebuilding a trust with humans that she never had until now. But that mental tether will take time to cast off. And when that day comes, if it is possible for Billie to get that far, the “Last Chain on Billie” will truly be gone.
To be continued: Last Chain on Billie : How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top by Carol Bradley : Review Part 2
Watch YouTube Video “Billie’s Last Chain”
Carol Bradley the author of “Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top” website
More photos of Billie the elephant at the Daily Mail