Scottish Opera bring the touching true story of a zookeeper and her elephant to life

When Sheila the elephant became distressed by the nightly bombing raids of the Second World War, her young keeper at Belfast Zoo decided to take her home so she could sleep in her garage. Now this extraordinary story, part of the city’s folklore, is the subject of a new work by Scottish Opera. Lee Randall reports

When Sheila the elephant became distressed by the nightly bombing raids of the Second World War, her young keeper at Belfast Zoo decided to take her home so she could sleep in her garage. Now this extraordinary story, part of the city’s folklore, is the subject of a new work by Scottish Opera. Lee Randall reports

STRANGE, unsettling things happen during wartime – but strangely wonderful things happen, too. One of the most charming tales to emerge from the Belfast Blitz of 1941, is the story of Sheila the Asian elephant, and a woman called Denise Austin, who decided that the sensitive young pachyderm would make the perfect house guest. Now their friendship has inspired a new work commissioned by Scottish Opera’s Education Department, The Elephant Angel, with a book by acclaimed Glasgow-based novelist Bernard MacLaverty, and music by Scottish Opera composer-in-residence Gareth Williams.

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In 1934, 12 acres of land were set aside within the city’s Bellevue Gardens, for the development of Belfast Zoo, which opened on 28 March. That first year more than 284,000 visitors streamed in to see the animals, many of whom had arrived in Belfast by boat, including an elephant called Daisy, who was walked by zoo keepers from the Belfast docks to Antrim Road, more than five miles away.

But with the outbreak of war, animals were imperilled. Not only was it costly to feed them, there was a serious public safety concern: what if dangerous or poisonous creatures escaped if the site was bombed, and ran amok in the streets? With that in mind, after an aerial attack on the northern end of the city on 19 April 1941, Belfast’s Ministry of Public Security ordered the destruction of 33 animals, including lions, wolves, and polar bears – but not elephants. The designated animals were duly shot, and the zoo’s collection wasn’t fully restored until 1947.

Belfast’s was not a unique reaction. The German military ordered all of the nation’s zoos to shoot their lions, tigers, leopards and bears, a decree that was not universally obeyed – at least not immediately. Japan’s destruction of its zoo animals – part of a public relations push to inspire pro-war sentiment – became the stuff of horrific legend. And at London Zoo, in 1939, 40 poisonous snakes and invertebrates were killed. The Telegraph reported that the only reptiles spared were George, the centenarian alligator, some Chinese alligators, the Komodo dragons and the two largest pythons – who were “securely packed away in stout wooden boxes.” Denizens of the Insect House deemed dangerous – black widow spiders, scorpions, and so on – were slaughtered. On a happier note, Ming, a giant panda, was evacuated to Whipsnade, and joined by other rare animals over the ensuing days.

Denise Austin, who was in her twenties when war broke out, lived with her parents in a large red brick house with a walled garden, on Whitewall Road, just 400 yards down the hill from Belfast Zoo. She was the zoo’s first female keeper, and her story came back to the foreground in 2009, when pictures of Austin and Sheila appeared in newspapers under headlines asking, “Who Gave a Home to Elephant Sheila During the War?” Austin’s second cousin, David Ramsey, a solicitor based in Belfast, came forward to identify his relatives and rekindle public interest in their story.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: “Denise was eccentric and lived in a rather exotic home called Loughview House.” Family legend holds that Denise, realising that Sheila was distressed by the nightly bombing raids, would sneak back to work through the blackout, returning to the zoo each night to talk to Sheila, and scratch her behind the ears to calm her down. At some point Denise decided that the elephant would be happier spending the nights in the safety of her back garden, which was much quieter, being further down the hill, and which boasted a large garage where the elephant could sleep. On her visits, the Austins fed Sheila fresh hay from the family farm.

Denise would wait until her boss, head keeper, Dick Foster – a man whose working day was so carefully regimented that you could tell the time by his arrivals and departures – left work each night. Then she’d take Sheila from her enclosure and, using a rope lead, march her down the hill to Whitewall Road. Sometimes they’d stop at the local shop where Sheila was given stale bread. In the morning, Denise would sneak the elephant back into the zoo before the boss got in. Despite everyone knowing about the pachyderm’s peregrinations – it’s a hard thing to overlook – Foster remained in the dark for 18 months. No one was fussed until the day that Sheila was startled by a dog barking. She let out a snort and tore off after it – straight through the neighbours’ front gardens, which prompted complaints.

After that, Foster kept Sheila in a special cage, and kept the key close to his person! Denise Austin died in 1997, preceded by Sheila, who died in 1966, of a skin complaint.

Bernard MacLaverty, who grew up in Belfast, vividly remembers Sheila. When I catch up with him via telephone, he explains: “I did go and see this elephant when I was a child of around eight or nine. I would go into the elephants’ house and there would be Sheila. Being a child, the remarkable things I came away remembering were the huge diameter steel bars that were preventing the elephant from bending them and coming out, and also the stink, preventing us from going in! And just the very tactile nature of the elephant and her skin and the wrinkles. It was a sense experience.”

He and Williams have collaborated before on short operas, notably The King’s Conjecture in 2008. MacLaverty says: “Somebody sent Gareth this piece from the Belfast Telegraph about this woman, with a photograph of the elephant tied up in her back yard, and he said, ‘Now that’s opera!’ He asked, would I be interested in trying to write the story?

“You start out with an interesting and fascinating idea, and you inch it forward. All the elements are there, of a woman in the 1940s, getting a job as the first female zoo keeper in the British Isles, and her falling under the spell of an elephant – and the possibility of danger coming from the skies. So she takes the elephant to walk home every night, and looks after it and fondles its ears.”

Children enter the story, he says, because they would have been around to witness Sheila’s nightly parade. “There was a great tradition too, at that time, of children and street songs and street games, ball bouncing games and skipping rhymes. We’ve managed to try and include that into the story.”

In the opera, Sheila is represented by a 4ft-high puppet that walks on all fours, thanks to the industry of a completely hidden performer inside. “It’s halfway between a puppet and a pantomime horse,” jokes MacLaverty. Her voice is recreated by a French horn. Other animals – a lion, polar bear, and tiger – are comedic figures, and their roles are being sung by members of Scottish Opera’s Connect programme. At every performance, youngsters selected from local schools will take part, as well. Ultimately, says MacLaverty, Denise and her parents, while interesting, are not the story. “The whole relationship of the threat and the elephant and all of that, is the story. I remember teaching a class, trying to arrive at a definition of fiction, and a wee girl said, ‘Sir, sir, it’s made up truth.’ I thought that was brilliant. The made-up truth is an amalgam of making up and of truth, which results in a truth in itself – a different truth.”

JUMBO FACTS

• In the same way humans are left or right-handed, elephants are left or right-tusked. The dominant tusk is known as the major tusk, and is usually shorter than the other tusk due to wear and tear.

• Their gestation period is 22 months, the longest pregnancy of any land animal.

• Elephants are magnificent swimmers. They use all four legs to swim and are able to move swiftly, their body providing flotation while their trunk acts like a snorkel.

• The life cycle of an elephant is fairly similar to a human’s. They begin mating around 20 and have a life expectancy of around 70. The oldest elephant in captivity lived to 86.

• The old saying ‘an elephant never forgets’ is true. Matriarchs, in particular, have a keen memory and are able to remember old faces. This can be vital to the survival of the herd when they encounter other individuals they do not recognise.

• Despite the size of their ears, the elephant’s hearing is poor.

• Elephants spend about 16 hours a day eating and consume as much as 495lb of food in that time. Elephants are herbivores and eat all types of vegetation such as grasses, leaves, fruits, and bark.

• They have the largest brains in the animal kingdom.

• Elephants normally walk at a speed of 4mph.

• A fully grown African elephant reaches the height of between 10 to 13 feet. Its Asian counterpart is usually smaller, at around 10 feet.