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In the early 1800s the Strand in London exhibited a famous trained elephant, Chunee, who performed stunts for his owners’ profits. He was the star of numerous shows at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. He was male and huge…11 feet tall and nearly 7 tons or 14,000 pounds.
Chunee was bought by a Mr. Pidcock of the Exeter Exchange which had been part of the Strand. Pidcock exhibited Chunee as well as a two-headed cow, kangaroos, beavers, and exotic birds. After Pidcock died in 1810, the animals were sold and Chunee ended up owned by Edward Cross.
Sixteen years later, in February 1826, while Chunee was being exhibited at the Strand, he finally snapped and killed one of his keepers. From there on he became more and more determined to escape his miserable captivity and there were fears that he would break right out of his small cage. Edward Cross decided to have Chunee killed.
On March 1, his keeper tried to poison him, but Chunee refused to consume it. Then soldiers were ordered to shoot Chunee firing squad style. As the elephant knelt at the command of his keeper, he was hit by 152 musket balls, but lived through it. His keeper then stabbed him with a large spear. Chunee died in a prolonged agony.
The human vultures then put on a show of butchering and dissecting his remains for sale to various opportunists. His skeleton was paraded around the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly and then ended up at the Royal College of Surgeons until it was destroyed by German bombing in 1941.
Chunee’s death led to extreme outrage among the public. People wrote to newspapers complaining about the horrible caged existences of the animals, and more complained about the hideous murder of Chunee. People no longer wanted to patronize the animal shows and as a result the Exeter Exchange soon shut down around 1829. The remaining animals were transferred to a zoo in Surrey.
The year was 1903. Topsy the elephant was electrocuted to death on Coney Island on the US’s East Coast.
It’s commonly believed that Thomas Edison was responsible for Topsy’s execution, that he did it to discredit a competing form of electricity—alternating current (AC)—which was discovered by Nikola Tesla. Topsy’s murder was said to be one of many animal electrocutions conducted by Edison in this so-called “war of the currents.”
But others say Topsy was to be killed anyways because she had killed a man and became more and more desperate to escape her horrible existence after a trainer had tortured her with a pitchfork. The war of the currents had ended in the 1890s, while Topsy’s killing was in 1903.
The original plan was to hang Topsy, but animal welfarists objected to the cruelty. So they’d decided that electrocution by alternating current would be more humane.
Edison’s supporters were determined to show that Tesla’s alternating current was even more dangerous than direct current (DC), so they along with Edison had in the past electrocuted a number of animals, including dogs, to prove their claim.
However, nobody had ever electrocuted an elephant before, so Topsy’s killers decided to poison, strangle and electrocute her. She was fed cyanide-laced carrots and her feet were strapped into conductive copper sandals so she could be electrocuted.
It’s unclear if Edison was a direct part of Topsy’s murder. His presence isn’t mentioned in newspaper accounts of the execution, and none of Edison’s writings mention Topsy in any way.
Topsy’s terrible death can be seen on video here …and is said by author Michael Daly to represent “the culmination of an intensively personal and private drama” for Edison.
But the war of the currents had already been lost by Edison, and Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse had won, as their AC became dominant in the electric power industry.
Needless to say, Topsy should have had a life filled with adventure and traveling with her herd, not existing and dying as she did.
Tyke the elephant was murdered in Honolulu on August 20, 1994. She was 20 years old (usual lifespan would be about 65), an African elephant, and was owned by Circus International.
On this day as she entered the ring at the Blaisdell Arena, circus patrons believed she was kicking around a dummy. But it was instead her groomer and he was severely injured. The audience became panicked and ran for the exits. Tyke’s trainer then intervened and was crushed to death by her and then she made a break for it, fleeing the arena desperately, to be anywhere but there any longer.
For a half hour, Tyke ran through the streets of the nearby business district amid heavy car traffic. Circus promoter Steve Hirano tried to fence her in but she trampled him. The Honolulu police ended up shooting her 87 times before she finally expired due to nerve damage and brain hemorrhages. Many horrified people witnessed the awful spectacle.
Video can be seen here without age restriction.
Over two decades later, witnesses still remember it clearly, and in Honolulu animal circuses are no longer popular. No elephants have performed in circuses there since Tyke’s killing, even though using circus elephants remains legal.
In 2014, Moscow International Circus wanted to exhibit “wild animals” in Honolulu, so PETA circulated a petition against it. As a result the circus told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that animals would no longer be used in their shows, so PETA said in a press release:
“As the world saw 20 years ago when Tyke lashed out and died bellowing on the street, forcing frustrated animals to perform in circuses can have deadly consequences. PETA supporters and kind people around the world will be relieved to hear that the Moscow International Circus is putting safety and kindness first and going animal-free in Hawaii.”
Despite it all, many circuses still use exotic animals, including elephants, in their shows today.
PETA provides a list of animal-free circuses here: http://www.mediapeta.com/peta/pdf/Animal-Free-Circuses-pdf.pdf