Jessie the elephant
Jessie’s exact age was unknown, but she was believed to be eight years old when she arrived in Sydney on 30 November 1883. Purchased from the Calcutta Zoological Society, she had travelled by ship, accompanied by two keepers or ‘mahouts’, whose names were reported to be Parbuck and Eliback.
Jessie’s arrival caused great excitement. She was offloaded at Millers Point on the southern side of Sydney Harbour. Rather than walking her through the city streets to Moore Park, zookeepers planned to transport her in a van, but getting her into it was not an easy task! No sooner had she been coaxed inside than she ‘walked out again before the doors could be fastened, brandishing [her] trunk and looking rather put out’.2 Jessie was eventually transferred to the zoo, and before long she was ‘quietly munching sugar cane’ in a shed that had been readied for her arrival.3
- 1. Warren Fahey, ‘Sayings of old Sydney’, citing a talk given in 1901 by J P Guame, ‘Humours and past times of early Sydney’, www.warrenfahey.com.au/sayings-of-old-sydney/, accessed 23 December 2020.
- 2. ‘Arrival of the elephant for the zoological gardens’, The Daily Telegraph, 1 December 1883, p7, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article239270227.
- 3. The Evening News, 15 December 1883, p6.
Jessie had a gentle demeanour, and it was reported that she would ‘lie down, roll over, and do a great many other things at the word of command’ from her keepers.
Parbuck … showed the method of mounting the elephant by placing a foot on her trunk, and catching hold of her ears, one in each hand. Jessie then gives a gentle hoist with the trunk, and the thing is done.4
Elephant rides were then a popular form of entertainment, and a necessary money-spinner for the zoo. People rode on a specially made saddle, known as a ‘howdah’, with bench seats on either side. To get into the saddle, riders climbed a set of steps onto a raised platform. Over six months in 1916, income from rides on Jessie at Moore Park Zoo totalled £146 15s (around $15,000 today). She carried more than 35,000 people in this time, at a penny a ride.
In 1916, Jessie moved from Moore Park Zoo – her home of over 30 years – to more spacious grounds in the new Taronga Zoological Park, on the northern side of Sydney Harbour. For this journey, Jessie walked through the city streets in the early hours of Sunday, 24 September, guided by the zoo’s head keeper, Mr Miller, then through the Domain and down Macquarie Street to a waiting vehicle ferry at Bennelong Point.
Her feet became sore on the hard roads, and at times she grew nervous in unfamiliar surrounds, but with ‘a pat on the shoulder, or a reassuring grip on her ear … she [passed] through narrow streets or across tram rails’ to reach the waiting ferry.
With hardly any hesitation, Jessie walked on to the punt, and ran her trunk over the outer gate, as if inquiring whether she would remove the obstacle. A word from her keeper, and she stood as still as a rock during the trip down the harbour.
The pontoon dipped alarmingly under her 4-ton weight as she alighted at Taronga, but with words of encouragement from her keepers ‘she finally tip-toed across the pontoon and on to the wharf’.5 By 7am she had been introduced to her new home, built to resemble an exotic Indian temple.
Jessie lived out the rest of her long life at Taronga. To much public sorrow, she died on 26 September 1939, after almost 56 years of zoo life in Sydney.
- 5. The Evening News, 25 September 1916, p4.