Friday, May 9, 2014

The greatness of a nation can be judged.....



This week the documentary film Blackfish was shown on British TV again and I was gnashing my teeth.
As the song says, It wouldn't happen here. It is a thought provoking film about Seaworld and the ethics of keeping animals like Tillikum  in that environment. And the dangers to both human and orca  in doing so.

I happened to be staying at The Mirage in Las Vegas on the day that Mantecore the tiger ‘attacked’ Roy of Roy and Siegfried fame. I put the word attacked in inverted commas as it may have been an benevolent attack by the tiger who may have sensed his owner was having a stroke.  While the situation was horrific and Roy was lucky to survive his injuries, my own default position was that performing with a tiger….. 850 pounds of tiger…… sooner or later, ends in tears.

If you keep sticking your head up a chimney, you will end up with a sooty face.


I don’t know if it is still the case but the tigers at that time were actually in the hotel, in the lobby behind a glass wall….and folk thought was normal. I guess it is for Vegas. 
We were shocked.

All domestic cat owners know that Tiddles becomes an end stage predator as soon as he leaves his natural habitat of his pink fleecy bed under the radiator. Dogs have a few thousand years of domesticity to tweak their DNA and we have selectively bred puppy like traits into them which makes Rover much more manageable and useful for us.  There’s been many studies of wolf cubs being brought up by humans in a domestic situation. All is well and the pups are just pups until they get to 6-8 weeks old. Then all hell breaks lose and there is a small cuddly wolf jumping on your head to pull the toast out your mouth with his teeth.
In Scotland circuses with live animals  (apart from humans) have not been able to perform as they are refused  licenses to do so. We have tight bans on keeping wild animals as pets... although there is now a worrying rise in keeping snakes as pets.
That escapes me totally.

                                                   The circus comes to town....

My father in law can recall Charlie the elephant walking up the high street in Barrhead because the circus  was coming to town. He knew Charlie from the days when he farmed north of Glasgow near Milngavie  and Charlie was resident at the local zoo. And Charlie ate a LOT!

He is  famous for trying to get into a Pub in Milngavie’s high street and getting stuck in the doorway. ( I mean the elephant got stuck not my father in law – he has never had any trouble getting into a pub!)  The local fire brigade was called to get Charlie out and it took them ages due to a lack of specialist elephant freeing equipment.

Charlie caused a crack in the wall over the door and the incident is commemorated with a plaque. He was trying to get inside because his pal Ibrahim was in there, having a quiet little refreshment and Charlie did not approve. The pair were inseparable.


Charlie was caught in the wild somewhere  in Southern India when he was five years old. Hunters drove his herd into a trap and he was nearly killed as he was too young to sell and therefore not much use to them. But the children in the local village took pity on him and adopted him. I read that Charlie was always very gentle with children. Maybe he always remembered the kindness they showed to him.

Charlie was then sold to a Chinese Circus who were appearing in Singapore when the Japanese invaded. The elephant was then an official Prisoner of War.  The story goes that his handler was told to put Charlie to work clearing trees, when the poor beastie tired, his handler was forced to prod him with a bayonet to keep him going.


In the early 50’s he came to Glasgow  - a fine beast by that  time. He was six tons in weight and ten feet tall. He loved being in Glasgow with his  keeper and that fact that the local diet  of buns and  yum yums was exactly what  he  would have eaten if he had stayed  in India. Charlie was famous for bathing in Abie Loch. Until the locals realised what he might be doing in (and to)  the water supply and started to moan.  He was hosed down from then on. The ever faithful Ibrahim slept with Charlie in the elephant house, fully confident that the big beastie would never trample him or roll onto him while fast asleep. The big beastie never did.

The friendly pachyderm remained the star attraction at  Craigend Zoo until it closed. Then all  2000 animals were sold off – apart from Charlie who was just too expensive to feed.  And then somebody offered to buy him for slaughter. It was reported at the time that Charlie would make 2000 cans of dog food. Singh Ibrahim warned anybody who got too close ‘You shoot Charlie, I shoot you!’

I’m kinda liking the sound of this guy.

                                                               A lama in the middle of Govan

A worldwild campaign followed, the media picked up the story,  the Lord Provost appealed for  clemency, the co-op sent hay, film stars turned up to lend support,  money poured in from all round the place to keep him in buns until a home could be found.

Zoos around the world wanted him but his size made transportation difficult.  The Donaldson shipping line offered him free passage to Canada. Another company offered to take him back to India and free him. Somebody suggested he could be inflated and floated to his destination (????). And some English woman offered  to follow the route taken by Hannibal and ride him over the Alps.

In the end  Charlie was rescued from the slaughterman by the famous  Billy Butlin who took him to The Ayr holiday camp.

Tragedy struck in 1961 when Ibrahim died and Charlie started to lose the plot and became  grumpy, then violent. By now he was in Yorkshire and the staff of that holiday camp had no option but to put him to sleep. He was euthanased by sealing off his stall and gassing him with the fumes from a lorry.

Some sources say that Charlie was buried on that site. The camp closed in 1983, was  demolished in  1989 and planning permission was granted to rebuild on the site in the early 2000’s. I can’t find any record of him being dug up. I think he   would have been too big to miss.

Another source said that he was stuffed and is now in a museum in Brazil.

I think its fair to say that we now know elephants are very intelligent with a huge capacity for emotional thought and  altruism.  We would all be uncomfortable with this…

                                                       Or this


So are we still OK with this…..

Caro Ramsay  GB  08 05 2014


  1. As I've mentioned before, I grew up next to (not in) a zoo, and the sounds, sights, and smells of animals in captivity were part of my youth.

    Once my friends and I, as nine-year-olds, came across specimen jars of poisonous snakes from the zoo illegally disposed of in the woods. After breaking the jars with rocks we learned they weren't quite dead yet, so we used a lot more rocks to make sure they were. I think we were more afraid of what our parents would do to us for letting cobras run loose in the hollow than of the snakes themselves.

    I remember I was nine because that's when my mother's hair turned white, the precise moment being when I turned up at the kitchen door to surprise her with one of the dead snakes proudly displayed on a tree branch. My generally unflappable mother's scream was enough to summon the police on its own, but she still used a phone and the reporters and stories that followed cost a couple of zookeepers their jobs.

    I never had the desire to keep a pet, perhaps because of some subliminal aversion I formed in those days to so many animals living a caged existence.

    And yes, Caro, it's never crossed my mind to keep a snake as a pet...though blacksnakes and I do peacefully coexist in my farmhouse. So far.

  2. Caro, Wonderful post. The story of Charlie illustrates perfectly the problem. Keeping a wild animal as a curiosity is all very cute and charming until the end comes and then it is tragic.

  3. Well, Jeff I suppose that brings new meaning to the phrase a 'snake in the grass.' A snake on a stick sounds more like a canape!

  4. Ta Annamaria, My father in law was a beef farmer all his days and he was very fond of his 'beasts'. Yet, he saw the sadness of the lack of dignity of Charlie walking up the high street. He spoke to Ibrahim on more than one occasion - he just adored his elephant.

  5. Remarkable story, Caro. I, too, would rather not see wild animals caged in zoos or kept as pets. I've seen the whales like Tillkum perform at Sea World, and it always amazed me, when the trainer balanced on the whale's nose while it propelled this puny human way up into the air, why the whale didn't just open its mouth on the way down and treat itself to a light snack. Maybe it was the neoprene wetsuit that put it off?

  6. There are many stories - true ones - of people mistaking wild animals for tame. There is a lion park outside Johannesburg - quite a large area, but nothing like the real bush. It attracts visitors to Johannesburg who, perhaps, don't have time to go to Kruger. About 10 years ago or so, a group of Chinese visitors went there to see the King of the Jungle - and a couple of them decided to pose with the pride of lazy lying lions. So they jumped out of their car and stood behind the lions. The lions couldn't believe their luck - a sit down meal without pre-prandial exercise. Fortunately the authorities didn't feel it necessary to euthanize the lions. In fact, many of us in South Africa feel that it should be the stoopid tourists who should be helped to the afterlife.