Jumbo: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant in the World, Paul Chambers
Steerforth Press, 2008, 208 pages
*Alert: Spoilers included*
I fell head over heels for circus lore after reading Water for Elephants, and was dying to get my hands on some real-life circus stories. The story of Jumbo seemed a perfect place to start. But this book was sad from start to finish. I turned the last page feeling disappointed, and Chambers' tone suggested that he did as well. His last line, which quotes the adage, "The bigger they come, the harder they fall," paints Jumbo's life as ultimately a let-down.
From the very start, Jumbo's entrance into captivity was marked by violence. The Victorian era had developed an entire business around the sale and trade of wild animals, so capturing elephant calves, and necessarily slaughtering their mothers, was common. I have a middle-of-the-road attitude about treatment of animals: I like to see animals treated with kindness, but I would never elevate the importance of an animal with that of a person. Perhaps the killing of Jumbo's mother, and other wild elephants, was excessively cruel, but perhaps bringing a baby elephant into captivity for the delight of thousands of people should be expected to have such a cost. Regardless, it does tug at the heartstrings to read about a baby taken so forcibly from his dying mother.
Jumbo's life in captivity continued to be laced with illness, deception, manipulation, and anger. Though he came to be nearly a national mascot while residing in the London Zoo, he was given to fits of rage and during some periods, his battered enclosure required daily repair. His keeper, a withdrawn and unsocial man, grew wildly possessive of Jumbo, not allowing anyone else to train or handle him. When sold to the American circus tycoon, P.T. Barnum, Jumbo apparently refused to go and it took the team nearly two months from the time of sale before they contrived a successful plan to move the animal from his London dwelling to the steamer that would take him across the Atlantic.
After just four years of touring with Barnum's circus, Jumbo met a shocking and violent end in a train wreck. His preserved and stuffed skin, which first toured with the circus and was then donated to Tufts College where it stood for decades, also met a tragic end when the building caught fire in the 1970's. His keeper, who had always been a loner and was even more solitary after the death of his companion, dropped off the map and most likely died in poverty. Even Jumbo's "wife," a female elephant who'd been housed with him in London and was later bought by Barnum's circus, was killed in a fire several years after Jumbo's death. How's that for an upbeat tale?
Jumbo might have lived up to 60 years in the wild had he never been captured. He might have enjoyed 30 or more in the London Zoo, if he hadn't been so troublesome. As it was, he was killed at the age of about 25, but his impact outstripped his lifespan for he had entertained tens of thousands of people in both Britain and in the United States and had planted his name firmly into the American soil as a household adjective.
If nothing else, Jumbo's story reminds us that nothing in this world can last and that perhaps by trying to hold on to something we love, we only make the parting more difficult when it finally comes. Furthermore, it uncovers the fact that life in the zoo or the circus is not as glitzy and magical as you might assume. Danger and exhaustion are a way of life and when tragedy strikes, the show must go on (even if it means whisking a killed acrobat from the ring before anyone notices). As a pleasure read, Jumbo was informative but discouraging. I suggest you take your reading hours elsewhere.