Sunday, January 4, 2009

How attitudes have changed

Continuing our holiday theme, we've been reading a ripping yarn about a final-year veterinary student who finds himself caring for a circus menagerie. Being a massive fan of the circus (ie NOT those that cause animals to suffer! We're talking trapeze artists, costumes and the odd performing dog who is rewarded, not punished, and has a good life) and a massive fan of veterinary history this was the perfect book. But it is based on some very disturbing true events. For example, I had no idea that in 1903 a circus elephant called Topsy killed her trainer after he fed her a lit cigarette. Why anyone would be motivated to do this to an animal is beyond my comprehension and I whilst the consequences were unfortunate they weren't unpredictable. It happened to be the third scalp Topsy had claimed and it was decided that the best course of action was to put her to sleep, as one might an aggressive dog. One does wonder however whether the other deaths were also avoidable. Anyway, being 1903 it was decided (by whom I am not sure) that Topsy's "execution" should be a public spectacle. It was even mooted that she be hung, but the ASPCA stepped in arguing that this was cruel. Instead, Thomas Edison was invited to electrocute her after she was feed cyanide laced carrots. She was made to wear copper-lined wooden boots while a current of over 6000 vaults was sent through her while over 1500 people stood by and watched. There is quite a lot of information about this event on the internet, including newspaper clippings from the time and the video footage taken by Edison although I can't bring myself to watch it. The incident makes our blood boil. If this animal really had to be destroyed (and I am not convinced of this) was there a more humane alternative at the time?

Anyway, the book touches on this and other quite disturbing true events involving animals in the circus but I can say that it is not gratuitous. The author supports a number of animal causes (check her website

The Commercial Advertiser printed the following on January 5 1903:

Topsy Meets Quick and Painless Death at Coney Island.
Topsy, the ill-tempered Coney Island elephant, was put to death in Luna Park, Coney Island, yesterday afternoon. The execution was witnessed by 1,500 or more curious persons, who went down to the island to see the end of the huge beast, to whom they had fed peanuts and cakes in summers that are gone. In order to make Topsy's execution quick and sure 460 grams of cyanide of potassium were fed to her in carrots. Then a hawser was put around her neck and one end attached to a donkey engine and the other to a post. Next wooden sandals lined with copper were attached to her feet. These electrodes were connected by copper wire with the Edison electric light plant and a current of 6,600 volts was sent through her body. The big beast died without a trumpet or a groan.
Topsy was brought to this country twenty-eight years ago by the Forepaugh Circus, and has been exhibited throughout the United States. She was ten feet high and 19 feet 11 inches in length. Topsy developed a bad temper two years ago and killed two keepers in Texas. Last spring, when the Forepaugh show was in Brooklyn, J. F. Blount, a keeper, tried to feed a lighted cigarette to her. She picked him up with her trunk and dashed him to the ground, killing him instantly."