The Tale of the Elephant’s Tail

By TFCB author, Ann Downer

(Domenica invited author Ann Downer to write a post about researching her new title for TFCB’s Spring 2011 season. The book is called Elephant Talk [cover below] and it looks at the many incredible ways in which elephants communicate with each other and with other species. So don’t worry if an elephant puts his snout in your mouth. He’s just saying hello!)


Not everything I research ends up in my final draft. Like a film editor, I sometimes have to leave some really good scenes on the cutting-room floor, either because they don’t add to the overall story I’m trying to tell or they would make the book too long.

In the case of the elephant’s tail, it was a little of both.

In January 2010, I was working on my new book, Elephant Talk. I was engrossed in my research for the chapter “Gods and Monsters,” about the complicated relationship between elephants and humans. The chapter deals both with the long shared history of elephants and humans and the modern day problem of ivory poaching. I was particularly intrigued by the story of Jumbo the circus elephant, whose global celebrity in the mid-1800s foreshadowed the fame of other animals, from Lassie to Secretariat, in the twentieth century. I knew that Jumbo was the mascot of Tufts University in Massachusetts, and I learned that the Tufts archives near my house had the papers of circus impresario P. T. Barnum–including the taxidermied tail of the real Jumbo. I wasn’t sure I had room to spare for Jumbo’s story, but I couldn’t resist following up the lead. How could I not go pay my respects to Jumbo’s tail?

Jumbo (1861-1885) was an African savannah elephant who toured with Barnum’s circus in the 1880s until he was killed by a train while trying to cross the railroad tracks in St. Thomas, Ontario. His body was stuffed, and Jumbo continued to tour with the circus until Barnum donated Jumbo, with Barnum’s papers, to Tufts University. The stuffed Jumbo was displayed in the university’s Barnum Hall until the building was destroyed by fire in 1975. After this second death, Jumbo assumed immortality as the Tufts University mascot; athletes touch the peanut butter jar containing Jumbo’s ashes for good luck before important games. His tail went into the university archives.

So one snowy morning last January, I walked from my house in Somerville, MA, to the nearby Tufts campus. I received a warm greeting from university archivist Anne Sauer, and her assistant saw me settled at a table and wheeled in a cart containing archival boxes containing the P. T. Barnum papers. I paged through Barnum’s own Jumbo scrapbook, bursting with yellowed newspaper clippings from the 1860s through the 1880s. It was a fascinating glimpse into what global celebrity was like before radio was widespread, before television, satellites, and the internet shrank our world and sped up our lives.

Then there was the tail, with its own accession number and Library of Congress code. It was less like the flyswatter you’d use to whisk flies away from Cleopatra as she reclined on a lounge, more like a bristly drumstick or baton. The act of stuffing it and giving it a library classification number seemed to have taken all the elephant out of it. I pondered it a minute, thinking of the sad end of its owner and of the cost elephants pay for our fascination with them. Then I closed the box.

In the end, Jumbo’s story was too jumbo for Elephant Talk. I decided to focus the chapter on the challenges of elephant conservation in the twenty-first century, and on the first-person stories of a Nepalese mahout, a Kenyan elephant scout, and an American zookeeper. But I still think of Jumbo, and the tail that ended up on the cutting room floor.

[Check in next week for more from TFCB!]

2 thoughts on “The Tale of the Elephant’s Tail

  1. Domenica Di Piazza

    Glad you enjoyed it! My favorite part of this amazing book is a quiz that challenges readers to match elephant behavior with what it means. For instance, if an elephant puts his trunk in your mouth, he's just saying hello. Amazing animals, that's for sure.

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