An Elephant Named Sue

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9 min read

Hope you’re having a good “Be Kind to Animals Week” Thursday. Remember the Hawthorn elephant campaign from a couple of years ago? If not, the short version is that after extensive negotiations over many months, a circus operation called the Hawthorn Corporation agreed to relinquish twelve elephants to a sanctuary, resulting in the single largest elephant rescue in history. If you’re interested, the longer version with more details is here.

My friend and colleague, Debbie Leahy, was a big part of that whole campaign, and she wrote an extremely moving account of the rescue of one of the elephants named Sue. Never one to seek the spotlight, Debbie never shared her story publicly. But as soon as I read it I knew it had to see the light of day, so I asked her to let me post it here. She agreed, and so here we are.

“It was the Wednesday before Christmas, and just as I was drifting off to sleep, I received a late-night phone call. It was Carol Buckley of The Elephant Sanctuary. She had an elephant emergency. Carol explained that Scott Blais and other sanctuary staff members had traveled to the Hawthorn Corporation in Richmond, Illinois, owned by John Cuneo, to assist Cuneo’s veterinarian with drawing blood from the elephants in preparation for their January transport to the sanctuary. Cuneo’s vet sedated Sue, who was considered to be very dangerous, for the blood draw. Sue collapsed on her sternum in a splayed position and was unable to stand up after coming out of sedation. They needed a forklift immediately. I told Carol that I didn’t know of any forklift companies, but then I shook off my grogginess and powered up my computer to help her find one.By midnight, I had called a dozen different places and left frantic messages asking if they offered emergency forklift rentals. One of the companies had an answering service, and I’m certain that the woman who answered thought that I was a crank caller. She repeated, “You need help with a downed elephant?” I finally located a forklift, and after a series of phone calls, the company agreed to wake up a driver and delivered the forklift to Hawthorn by 3 a.m.That Thursday at noon, Carol asked if I could go to the Brookfield Zoo, pick up some straps that were designed specifically for elephants, and take them to Hawthorn. The straps filled two large Hefty bags. While I was in transit, the forklift company called me. They wanted to know how the elephant was doing. When I dropped off the straps, I went inside the barn to take a peak at Sue. I was shocked at the conditions at Hawthorn. The overwhelming stench of feces and urine made it difficult to breathe. Sue’s stall, in which this 8,000-pound animal had been forced to live for years, was approximately the size of a box-stall for a 1,000-pound horse. It was very dark, but I could see that Sue was awake and lying on her side. I thought to myself that after all the elephants were moved out of here, the place should be bulldozed, as nothing would ever remove that stench.Cuneo kept four elephants in the protected-contact area where Sue went down. Sue was born in 1965 and captured in Asia. She was first transported to Circus Vargas in 1969, when she was still a baby, and she was transferred to Hawthorn in 1995. Sue reportedly almost killed one of Hawthorn’s trainers. Billy was another one of the elephants I met in the protected-contact area at Hawthorn. Billy has lived there since 1971. And then there was Frieda, the elephant Hawthorn acquired from the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus after she rampaged twice in 1995, injuring about a dozen people and causing around $20,000 in property damage. The USDA prohibited Hawthorn from putting Frieda back on the road. Nickolaus, the fourth elephant, was born to Ronnie at Hawthorn in 1993 and had grown into a dangerous juvenile bull elephant. Nick’s father, Tunga, died three years after Nick’s birth, when he was just 32. On Friday, Carol asked that I pick up hoists from an equipment-rental company. One of the company’s employees had used a magic marker to draw a cute little picture of an elephant on the cardboard under each 150-pound hoist. I took another call from staff members at the forklift company, who were hoping for good news on Sue’s progress. I was touched that even strangers expressed concern over the plight of this elephant. Carol told me that they also needed 30 cases of Pedialyte. That translated into 240 1-liter bottles. No single store had that much Pedialyte in stock, so I went to several drugstores, loading up shopping carts with grape, orange, bubble gum, apple, and unflavored Pedialyte and cleared their shelves of approximately 100 bottles. I decided I would get the rest later. When I arrived at Hawthorn, Sue had been moved to an open area in the barn so that the forklift would have space to maneuver. Scott pointed out the other elephants while I was there. Hawthorn kept the rest of the elephants on the other side of the barn. They were chained by two legs in what the circus calls a “picket line.” The animals swayed … and swayed … and swayed. I could see that Liz, one of the elephants, was petite in comparison to the others. Two elephants toward the front, Minnie and Lottie, were clearly very attached to one another. They stood as close to each other as their chains would allow them and intertwined their trunks. Some of these animals, I learned later, were infected with tuberculosis.There were several empty places along the picket line where other animals had once stood—a ghostly reminder of all the elephants who have died at Hawthorn over the years, including Hattie, Joyce, Tyke, Maude, Tess, Bombay, Dumbo, Amy, and Jackie. These vacancies caused me to reflect on how differently things could have turned out if the USDA had only moved faster. Why wasn’t Hawthorn shut down immediately in 1994, after Tyke killed her trainer and police shot her to death in Honolulu? Or in 1996, after Hattie and Joyce died of tuberculosis and the other elephants were quarantined? Or after Lota became emaciated as this highly contagious bacterial lung disease ravaged her system? Or after Debbie and Judy rampaged through a church in North Carolina? Or after a trainer was convicted of cruelty to animals in Norfolk? Or after the elephant Delhi was confiscated because she was in imminent danger from lack of veterinary care? Over the years, how could USDA inspectors stand in the same spot that I was standing in, see the same things that I was seeing—filth, neglect, abuse, emaciated elephants, sick elephants, dangerous elephants, neurotic elephants—and just leave those animals there to suffer?I was glad, at least, that I was able to play a role in finally getting those elephants out of there. The USDA subpoenaed me to testify against Hawthorn after the agency filed charges alleging 47 violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. Some of my many visits to the circus had provided the agency with evidence of lack of veterinary care—which led to Lota’s being taken off the road—and unsafe handling.While I was there, Scott gave Sue a banana. She made yummy slurping noises as she ate it. I was amazed that after all she’d been through—including her current life-threatening predicament—she could still find joy in the simple pleasure of a tasty treat. I wasn’t really surprised when Scott said that there wasn’t enough produce at Hawthorn for the elephants. On Christmas Eve, I fought the crowds of last-minute shoppers in order to buy more Pedialyte and produce for the elephants. I loaded up my station wagon with hundreds of pounds of carrots, apples, bananas, pears, mangoes, watermelon, onions (yes, elephants like onions!), oranges, tangerines, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, peanuts, and celery. I left just enough room to see out of the rear view mirror. My four-cylinder engine ran sluggishly under so much weight, but it managed.On Christmas day, I returned to Hawthorn to deliver the goodies and stayed for several hours to lend a hand. One of the sanctuary’s veterinarians was there monitoring Sue’s blood. She was showing signs of improvement. The sanctuary staff members were working desperately to save Sue’s life. Scott was trying to help her stand up with the forklift, which was attached to straps around her chin, chest, and waist. The forklift gently pushed her forward and lifted her up inches at a time. Then workers adjusted the tension on the straps and pushed the tires that she was leaning on for support closer to her. I’m sure it was all very strange for Sue, but she was patient and understood that everyone was trying to help her. Scott kept rubbing her, patting her, and giving “Suzie Q.,” his nickname for her, soothing words of encouragement. A couple of times, Sue roared out of frustration with not being able to get her legs to work. The other elephants immediately reacted by vocalizing, squealing, and trumpeting in order to let Sue know that they were there and were concerned over her distress. The other elephants wanted so desperately to be by Sue’s side to comfort her that they strained against their chains. Nickolaus, who was watching Sue’s dilemma from just a few feet away, hurled himself against the bars of the cage, which made a frightening noise that made me jump each time he did it. The sanctuary staff members made sure that Sue had as much food and drink as she wanted. They would open a bottle of Pedialyte, pour it into a bucket, and push it close to Sue’s trunk. Sue would then dip her trunk into the bucket, suck up the liquid, and squirt it into her mouth. Sue loved the orange flavor but didn’t care for the bubble gum flavor. Instead of squirting the bubble-gum flavored Pedialyte into her mouth, she sprayed it onto her back, drenching Scott a few times. I scrambled to pull all the orange flavored bottles from the dozens of bags piled against the wall. Staff members also sliced up a watermelon and other fresh produce for Sue, who eagerly took each piece with her trunk, placed it in her mouth, gobbled it up, and stretched out her trunk for more.Sue was lucid, and her appetite was strong. She was a spirited elephant, and she was clearly a survivor, having lived for so long in such horrible conditions. Over the next few days, we kept up hope that she would make it. Carol reported that Sue rallied a few times, trying to get on her feet. Scott provided a pool filled with warm water to help her. Scott and other staff members gently eased Sue into the pool and pumped in warm water. Immediately, Sue became energized, and she began to play. After splashing the water with her trunk in joyful abandon, Sue became still and passed away. All the other elephants—even Nick, who had become so loud and animated when Sue struggled in vain to get to her feet—fell completely silent. They knew that their longtime companion was leaving them.I had company visiting when Carol called on December 30 with the sad news. I didn’t care that I had visitors—I wept. It’s terribly unfair that Sue wasn’t given the opportunity to enjoy a new life at the sanctuary. But at least she knew comfort, tenderness, and dignity in her final days.”

There are a million other animals like Sue who need our help, so please, never patronize any circus or other act that uses animals. And please, share Sue’s story with others to make sure they don’t either.

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