All day, all night, Mary Ann

Baltimore Glimpses

December 17, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE Maryland Republican Party has taken over the care and feeding of four elephants at the Baltimore Zoo, a philanthropic and political gesture. (The Democrats, to be politically correct, have hinted they will take over the zoo's donkeys.)

But in 1925, the children of Baltimore had already outdone the political parties of 1991. They lobbied for, helped to pay for and then named the very first elephant ever to inhabit the Baltimore Zoo. Her name was Mary Ann, and she became a legend.

Sometime in the 1920s a group of school children visited The Baltimore Sun one summer night and asked to see the editor. They asked him to fire up public opinion to move the park board into acquiring an elephant for the zoo.

Out of that meeting came the appointment of a "jungle editor" who, through his columns, became the spokesman for the children's discontent with the zoo in general and, in particular, with the zoo's conspicuous lack of a pachyderm. The rival News-Post, jumping on the bandwagon, launched a drive among school children to raise the money for an elephant.

The two papers' campaigns converged in an avalanche of protest that landed at the door of the park board. Though the zoo lacked facilities for an elephant, the board finally acceded.

Nameless and homeless, she arrived, but she had to live at the Bay Shore amusement park until her living quarters at the zoo were built. And when the ballots were counted in the naming contest, Mary Ann was the winner.

So it was that on Easter Monday 1925, Mayor Howard W. Jackson, a bunch of VIPs, a brass band and thousands of children waited at the Madison Avenue entrance to Druid Hill Park for the arrival -- by flatbed truck -- of Mary Ann.

Because the kids had so large a stake in her, she was the object of continuing publicity. Mary Ann became a Baltimore institution. "Going to see Mary Ann," people would say.

As it turned out, Mary Ann had a difficult personality. Ben Gary, who was her trainer for a time, declared, "I wouldn't go near her!" It was Mary Ann's habit to scoop up things within her trunk's reach. One day she ate an umbrella. She also liked to eat people's hats.

But no matter. Baltimore's children who had lobbied to get Mary Ann, then had helped pay for her and then had named her continued to love her. She was theirs. Every Sunday afternoon she would be Druid Hill Park's center of attention.

Here the story takes a sad turn.

In 1940 the zoo was rebuilding the polar bear pool, which was right next to Mary Ann's quarters. Some said it was the noise of the work -- "Elephants have very sensitive ears," said Gary -- and some blamed it on other factors. But one night in March 1941, apparently weary beyond endurance, Mary Ann collapsed and died.

They took her out on the same truck on which she had arrived 16 years earlier.

The kids who brought Mary Ann to Baltimore in the 1920s became adults and talked about her for decades. More than a half-century later, some still remember her. She was no nameless zoo animal; she was part of growing up in Baltimore in the 1930s.

Though an elephant and a Republican symbol, Mary Ann was politically neutral. She didn't seem to care whether the hat she swooped off the head of an onlooker belonged to a Democrat or a Republican. They all went down the same.

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