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An Incomplete History of Elephants in Miami

Nathaniel Sandler

Elephant as talisman on West Dixie Highway. Photo by author.

Approximately one fifth of all elephants in North America are in the Sunshine State. A hundred out of 475. African or Asian—a mix—and like many people and beasts, they mostly came south for the weather.

According to John Lehnhardt, Executive Director of the National Elephant Center (NEC) outside of Vero Beach, it is easier to keep the animals in a warmer locale because they do not have to be brought inside when the temperature approaches freezing. The elephants adjust because Florida more closely parallels their native tropical climates. And it doesn’t hurt that they have acquired a healthy taste for the Florida Valencia oranges that grow on the former citrus grove where the facility is located.

The NEC is a state-of-the-art 225-acre non-profit support system for 73 different accredited zoos across the country that also fund the project. It is a home for elephants that may need homes, for a variety of reasons, short term or long. Elephant social situations can be precarious, particularly for young males who are often expelled from group units. They are also so expensive—anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 per year—that many smaller zoos have stopped housing elephants altogether.

The NEC is not open to the public because, as Lehnhardt, who doesn’t draw a salary states, “it’s about the elephants.” In this context the phrase is admirable and well intentioned, but people’s motives for having elephants aren’t always clear. And because they are so large and majestically imposing, it is always “about the elephant.”

But it’s not always about the physical elephant, particularly in Miami. Symbols abound in the subtropics. The old Miami Arena used to be occasionally called “The Pink Elephant,” because it was a figurative white elephant—something annoying to own, yet still valuable—that underwent a thick pink coat of paint. Pink elephants are an appropriate symbol for Miami, since most of the city is covered in the deco-fashionable hue and “seeing pink elephants,” or hallucinations brought on by drinking, is South Beach’s logical conclusion.

On West Dixie Highway and 150th street, in the far eastern side of the Southern Memorial Cemetery, a massive cartoonish statue of an elephant sits flanked by two male lions, dark manes and mouths agape. The statue was erected by the Miami Showmen’s Association, a social group for carnival workers in the 1940s that still exists today. The elephant’s eyes stare blankly, its trunk curled mid-performance, beckoning to the cheering crowds. But the elephant only looks over the dead, countless silent gravestones and markers; they do not tumble nor cheer nor goad on the beasts with whips and peanuts. The area the statue marks is a carnie graveyard, the elephant its talisman.

Outside of the circus and elephant husbandry, the millennia-spanning relationship between pachyderm and humankind is complicated. A wooly mammoth femur sits heavily in the Curious Vault of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, browning with tens of thousands of years of age. The story of the cavemen that saw this mammoth and the name of the archaeologist that dug it up are lost. Contexts the ancient leg bone has been taken out of include: body, setting, and Pleistocene era.

But this is perhaps the nature of the elephant: constantly being ripped from its context, its elephanthood, and thrown under the thumb of a ringmaster. They have been mechanisms of both work and war for thousands of years. Still today they work, mostly for entertainment but also clearing fields in some parts of Asia. Unwittingly or not, elephants are complicit. The sway of human fascination exacerbates this relationship.

Carl Fisher, the man who built Miami Beach, understood people’s attraction to the pachyderms. Equal parts Tony Goldman and P.T. Barnum, a sort of frontiersman/showman, Fisher looked across Biscayne Bay at the seemingly useless barrier island and saw something greater than a mess of mangroves and crocodiles. Miami Beach he began to call it. When the first of his elephants, Carl II, arrived in 1921, Fisher claimed he was “going to get a million dollars worth of advertising out of this elephant.” Found in a letter to John Oliver La Gorce, then Associate Editor of National Geographic Magazine in Washington D.C., the quote is often thought to be about Rosie, Miami’s most famous elephant.

And though the million-dollar number can’t really be quantified, Fisher’s elephant was effective, showing up in countless magazines and newspapers across the country. Carl II was photographed with then President-elect Warren G. Harding, holding his golf clubs as a cutesy caddie. The elephant was working.

Except Carl II was a bit unruly. The next letter to La Gorce in the “Elephant” folder in Fisher’s archives at HistoryMiami includes a story in which he tried to show the animal off to some friends without the trainer. “I did not know whether this elephant was kidding me or not,” he begins, “but he certainly did make a monkey out of me.” Carl II knocked Fisher to the barn floor, and when he tried to grab the elephant’s trunk received a blow to the gut and several bruises. The letter ends by asking for an elephant hook: a sharp stick to prod the lumbering beasts in whatever direction the wielder so chooses. Soon thereafter his trainer quit, worrying that Carl II was too dangerous for the public.

An African American gardener named Aaron Yarnell took over. He had shown some skill with mules and it was only meant to be an interim gig, as Fisher felt he needed an exotic trainer from the East to add to the mystique of his elephant. La Gorce began helping him import a mahout from Ceylon, whom they refer to as an “elephant chambermaid.” The incident becomes increasingly bizarre as the man La Gorce is using as a broker, M. Salie, an Indian gem merchant, was accused of polygamy at Ellis Island. When the bureaucratic tape rips and Salie’s mahout finally arrives, Carl II rejects him, preferring Yarnell. Photographs show Yarnell, caught in a bizarre racial compromise, dressed as an Eastern mystic.

Around two years later Rosie the elephant shows up. Soon thereafter Carl II (renamed Nero) is finally deemed a danger to the public and sent to a zoo up north. Even today, many of the things Carl II did are attributed to Rosie. Legends remain unclear about which elephant did what, though we do know both entertained and both worked clearing the brush on Miami Beach when needed. Carl II/Nero/Rosie are found in countless publicity stills from the time, with swimsuit girls, kids, or clearing the land, always with Yarnell by their side. In the archives there are several tersely written notes in which Fisher demands appearances at churches and auditoriums around town with other letters coming in requesting the elephant’s presence. “Mr. Fisher can you please send Rosie to the Easter Egg Hunt?” In 1920s Miami, elephants also functioned as publicity and outreach.

Rosie, who lived on Miami Beach until 1932 when she was sold to an Atlanta zoo, once made an appearance at a bank opening to “make a deposit.” Pictures flashed, people cheered and at some point Rosie nervously shat all over the bank floor. People reportedly ran from the bank quite chaotically.

Section 4-414 H of the Coral Gables Zoning Code still delineates a ban on the keeping of elephants. The law was enacted specifically “to avoid a circus atmosphere that might detract from the image of this planned community” said former president of the Coral Gables Bar Association Jane Muir, in an interview with WLRN. Muir suggests the law is a direct reaction to Fisher and his elephants.

So what more of elephants today? There are four elephants at Zoo Miami: two African, two Asian. Just last September, Maude, a 41-year old Asian elephant died of severe constipation, a tragedy communications director Ron Magill admits was unusual and devastating for the staff. Magill has seen the elephants come and go over the last 34 years. Each creature has a name (Dixie, Dahlip, Seetna, Flora, Nellie, Peggy, Mable) and while they are put on display for the public’s amusement, each is pampered by a trained and doting staff. Magill watched Spike’s birth in 1981, which he described as similar to watching “a big huge beach ball go splat on the ground.” He also sadly watched Machito as the elephant died from respiratory failure, believing that the animal understood he was dying.

“It is difficult to accept keeping elephants in captivity. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to themselves,” Magill says firmly. He is staunchly against pulling elephants from the wild, saying it “cannot be justified,” but also realizes there is no way you can reintroduce captives without killing them. “In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be any zoos,” he claims, a sentiment many espouse. Yet zookeepers are vital to our working knowledge of wild animals. In addition, the education of children is important, as Magill suggests,” you cannot look at a ten to fifteen thousand pound animal on TV and be inspired.”

Up until the early 1990s, the zoo contracted out elephant presentations, which mostly included joyous shows and brief giddy rides for children. Allen Campbell ran the program in Miami. He was later killed in Honolulu in the infamous rampage of Tyke the circus elephant. If you have not seen the footage of Tyke’s rampage through the streets and subsequent execution via a barrage of 86 police-issued bullets, it is gruesome and painful. Campbell was later proven to have been drunk and on cocaine during the incident that took his life. Magill said the zoo severed ties with Campbell because he was from the “old circus school,” and admits he had once seen him drunk.

Miami, unfortunately, does have a story like that. From 1989 to 2005, the Hanneford Family Circus performed at the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. Stories of the Hanneford Circus are borderline grotesque, laced with cruelty and swarming with cockroaches. In 1990, an Asian female named Carol crushed her handler to death during the first show of the day in front of a terrified audience. The very same Carol is still performing with Ringling Brothers as of April 2014. The elephant made news a year ago when her travelling caravan was shot at by an AR-15. She was hit with the stray bullet but survived in a random act of violence against the circus. The perpetrator was never caught.

Supposedly, the show must go on.

Why is it that we so diligently record the horrors of elephants? The deaths make the news, making us feel sad and ashamed because we cannot help but anthropomorphize these regal creatures. Stories of rogue elephants are etched in our memories like the tale of Topsy, the elephant Fort Myers resident Thomas Edison famously killed in front of a crowd of 1500 people to prove the dangers of his competitor’s electricity model. It seems elephants only become the story when tragedy is involved, and those that get told and retold are shrouded in sadness. Perhaps it’s not absurd to suggest that sadness and elephants are inextricably linked.

Carl Fisher died in 1939 a broke failure in his own eyes. His American legacy has been firmly cemented since; with his elephant herd an extravagant display for the nascent city of Miami Beach. Here, we are all elephants. Unless you are Calusa or Tequesta you too have been symbolically plucked from another land and ended up here, more often than not because of the weather. We all occasionally get sad or angry, work on our personal brand, lash out, see pink elephants, shit ourselves in fear, and love the taste of Valencia oranges.