Kids raised cash for zoo's first elephant

Way Back When

Thousands greeted Mary Ann's arrival

November 15, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

At a press conference the other day, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said that he had asked his budget secretary to explore whether the state could come to the aid of the financially strapped Baltimore Zoo.

Perhaps his intervention will help forestall the plan to send the zoo's two beloved pachyderms, Dolly and Anna, away to other institutions.

Because of the budget crunch, 20 jobs will be eliminated, including those of the four people who take care of the elephants. Joining in the proposed exodus from the zoo in Druid Hill Park are some 400 reptiles, birds and amphibians.

In 1991, the zoo was in the same economic pinch that it finds itself in today and the Maryland Republican Party offered to adopt the zoo's elephants through a program billed as GOP-ADOPT.

It was the brainchild of Carol L. Hirschburg, who was a member of both the Baltimore Republican Party's Central Committee and the zoo's board of directors.

"It's a bailout for the Baltimore Zoo in these times of economic distress. It's a way for the Maryland Republican Party to promote itself. And it's three squares a day, 365 days a year for Vaal, Dolly, Anna and Joe," said The Sun in an article at the time.

There was even some talk then that Democrats would ride to the rescue of the zoo's two donkeys, their party's symbol, to ensure they were adequately cared for.

The latest zoo crisis has engendered plenty of news stories and letters to the editor.

The reason we even have elephants in Baltimore is because of a children's crusade in the early 1920s.

A group of children called on the editor of The Sun and asked if he might lend his newspaper's support to the acquisition of an elephant for the zoo.

In order to rally support for the cause, Raymond S. Tompkins, a staff writer, was appointed "jungle editor." His job was to keep up a steady drumbeat of stories on the subject in hopes that the Park Board would agree to the children's demands.

The children, who were dubbed the "Jungle Circle," grew to an extraordinary 100,000. The Baltimore News-Post got into the act, organizing a drive to get Jungle Circle members to help raise money for the purchase of an elephant.

But in 1922, the Park Board did not want to get an elephant.

Gen. Felix Agnus, a board member, offered a resolution that said: "The Board most positively declines in advance the offer of an elephant."

The resolution continued, "The facts are that that particular animal at certain periods of the year becomes perfectly crazy and utterly unmanageable. The elephant's strength is so great, endangering the lives of their keepers, that only men of personal experience, who understand their special malady, can handle them, even at the risk of their own personal safety."

In response, Tompkins wrote: "You know how the Jungle Editor has written until his hands were stiff and cramped that all the zoo keepers in the United States said this was not true of female elephants? He has written it again and again, and every word he wrote was the truth as the zoo keepers had told it to him. But has that changed the Park Board's mind? Not the slightest."

The next day, Tompkins called on J. Cookman Boyd, president of the park board, with some stunning news. An elephant had been donated to the city and had arrived in New York City from Calcutta aboard the steamer Mount Carroll.

"We've got an elephant," he told Boyd. "The Jungle Circle wishes you to take it. If you won't, all we can do is tell the children their efforts have failed to move you. But we hope you will take it. We will give it to the zoo - a present from the children of Baltimore - bought with their own pennies as many other elephants have been bought for other zoos."

Eventually, the park board gave into the demands of the children, and the elephant was accepted. A city-wide naming contest was held with Mary Ann being the winner.

Mary Ann was housed at Gwynn Oak Park and later at Bayshore Park while her permanent home was being constructed in Druid Hill Park.

Mary Ann made a grand entrance into the zoo aboard a flatbed truck through the Madison Avenue entrance on Easter Monday in 1925. Thousands of children were waiting along with Mayor Howard W. Jackson and other VIPs. A lively brass band blared in the background.

Mary Ann became an instant celebrity whose popularity never seemed to wear off. She was a draw for families on Sunday afternoons who gathered outside her home to observe or toss in a few peanuts for her enjoyment.

But Mary Ann had a feisty personality and even managed to intimidate her trainer, Ben Gary, who said, "I won't go near her."

And with her powerful trunk, she was able to grab an umbrella out of the hands of an unsuspecting visitor or remove a hat with the agility of a pickpocket. It was reported that she ripped the sweater off a young girl and then ate it.

In 1940, the zoo began rebuilding the polar bear pool next door to her quarters and the construction racket interrupted her sleep.

She began to sleep standing up and eventually became severely fatigued. In March 1941, she collapsed and sprained her back. She later died.

Mary Ann was taken from the zoo on the same flatbed truck that took her there 16 years earlier. She was buried at the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park pet cemetery in Elkridge, where her grave can still be visited.

"The times were frivolous when Mary Ann, pro or con, bemused us. Perhaps that is why the Jungle Circle, the children's pressure group which dragooned the city into acquiring an elephant, was one of the major phenomena of the time," The Sun said in an editorial at her death. "She was never mean or ungracious. The only social error she is reported to have made was to sneeze upon two young admirers of the female sex."

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