Last Chain On Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top

Last Chain On Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top

by Carol Bradley

Hardcover(First Edition)

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Left in the wild, Billie the elephant would have spent her life surrounded by her family, free to wander the jungles of Asia. Instead, she was captured as a baby and shipped to America where she arrived in the mid 1950s, long before circus and zoo-goers worried about animal living conditions. Billie spent her first years confined in a tiny zoo yard giving rides to children. At 19, she was sold and groomed for life in the circus. Billie mastered difficult stunts: she could balance on her hind legs, walk on her front legs and perform one-foot handstands. For twenty-three years she dazzled audiences, but she lived a life of neglect and abuse. As years passed, Billie rebelled. When she attacked and injured her trainer, a federal inspector ordered her taken off the road. For a decade she languished in a dusty barn. Finally, fate intervened. The U.S. Department of Agriculture removed Billie and fifteen other elephants as part of the largest elephant rescue in American history. Billie wound up at a sanctuary for performing elephants in Tennessee at 45, but she thundered with anxiety in her new environment and refused to let anyone remove a chain still clamped around her leg. Last Chain on Billie charts the growing movement to rescue performing elephants from lives of misery, and tells the story of how one emotionally damaged elephant overcame her past and learned to trust humans again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250025692
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/22/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

CAROL BRADLEY is an award-winning former newspaper reporter and the author of the critically praised Saving Gracie: How One Dog Escaped the Shadowy World of American Puppy Mills. She studied animal law at Harvard University, where she was one of two dozen journalists worldwide chosen in 2003 to spend a year as a Nieman Fellow. She lives in Montana with her family.

Read an Excerpt



Before the ruckus of the circus, before she’d taken the first whiff of sawdust or popcorn or cotton candy or heard the rabble’s roar, she was a baby elephant in the lush, jungly wilds of India. On the day she was born she would have landed with a thud, encased in a birth sac her mother would have torn open with her trunk. She would have stood just three feet long and three feet tall and weighed less than 200 pounds—not much bigger than a Great Dane. To introduce her to her new world, her mother would have nudged her along the ground until she let out her first squeal. Minutes later she would be standing, and within a couple of hours she would have figured out how to scoot her tiny body under her mother’s, reach up to grab a mammary gland, and suckle her first meal.

We can only surmise this, of course, because no one witnessed Billie’s birth. No one was there to record the day she was born or even the year. And yet it’s reasonable to assume that in the beginning she was free to live as elephants should, her days spent in the company of her aunts, sisters, and cousins, at liberty to wander and frolic in the sun, and keeping close to her mother. Baby elephants seldom stray more than a hundred yards from their mothers in their first years.

Then, of course, came the capture, and that was just the beginning. The men who snared Billie would have held her for weeks, fenced in, all four legs shackled, and likely beaten into submission. She may have been starved at first, maybe kept awake all day and all night for several days—whatever it took to break her spirit. The isolation, the food deprivation, all of it was intended to let her know that she was embarking on a new life now and, no matter how big she grew to be, she was no longer in control. Not now or ever again.

She surfaced in America in 1966, at the age of four, at Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon, Massachusetts, a small enterprise tucked up a slender, meandering road on what used to be a dairy farm. Danny Southwick imported all manner of exotic wildlife, not just for his family’s zoo but for other parties, and one of the areas he imported elephants from was the Delhi region of India, so it stands to reason Billie was captured there, too. By the time she arrived in Massachusetts the zoo had 1,300 types of waterfowl, two lion cubs, a grizzly bear, tigers, a leopard, a camel from Arabia, a chimpanzee, some wallabies, and a hamadryas baboon.

Most of the elephants Southwick’s imported were two years old and prematurely weaned. Almost all of them were females and almost all arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, one of thirteen U.S. ports that permitted the entry of wild animals. The elephants were caged in wooden framed boxes, their legs tied to the frames for the duration of the fifteen-hour flight from India.

Unlike the bigger, more volatile African elephants, who arrived as wild as they had ever been, Asian elephants came partially tamed: not yet able to perform tricks, but docile enough to be handled. Danny Southwick’s sister, Justine Brewer, who now runs Southwick’s Zoo, remembers Billie being four to five feet tall and cute and sweet, not one to cause any trouble. Whether she gave rides to children is unknown; Brewer believes she was too young to do so. But she does remember the elephant’s name: Popsicle, Popsy for short.

The family hired a trainer, Junior Clarke, to work with her. In his late twenties with dark, slick-backed hair, Clarke worked for the Providence zoo, and for several years before that he’d partnered with Roy Bush to train eight elephants owned by Hunt Bros. Circus, one of dozens of small circuses that traveled the countryside. Several times a week he drove the twenty-four miles to Mendon to teach the young elephant how to perform simple tricks, the kind zoo-goers expected to see zoo elephants do. Otherwise she was left to mill about in her yard.

Had Popsicle been able to remain with her mother, the emotional part of her brain likely would have thrived, experts now know. Growing up surrounded by her family would have infused her with the resilience needed to cope with stress, communicate socially, and show empathy toward fellow elephants. Scientists have since learned that severing the mother-baby attachment too soon can cause the circuits in a vulnerable calf’s brain to thin down, especially in the part that processes emotions. The psychological damage caused by putting a baby elephant in a zoo by herself can be incalculable.

What must it have been like to be in a new place, a tiny enclosure so much more constricted than the open jungle she had been used to? Massachusetts winters are snowy and cold. An elephant accustomed to tropical temperatures would have had to spend much of her life there indoors. For a time she had company, an elephant named Anna, but in all probability Popsy spent much of her time at the zoo by herself. A half-century ago, zoos viewed animals as objects of entertainment and amusement. Little thought was given to their need for enrichment or company.

Popsicle might have spent the rest of her life at Southwick’s Zoo if Danny Southwick hadn’t decided to sell her the year she turned ten. Maybe she was getting too big to enchant patrons. An elephant grows at the rate of an inch a month until it turns three and doesn’t reach its full growth until the age of twenty-five or so, but she was clearly no longer a baby. Her early records no longer exist and Danny Southwick is long deceased, so no one knows why he chose to get rid of her. Only that he did. The zoo advertised her for sale, and a man named John Cuneo Jr. decided to look into buying her. Which meant that Popsicle’s life was poised to change in a very big way.


By the 1880s, the two biggest circuses in the country, Barnum & Bailey and Adam Forepaugh, had sixty pachyderms between them and that still wasn’t enough. The rival circuses engaged in a fierce battle over who could trot out the first white elephant, considered sacred in Asian cultures. Adam Forepaugh tried to trump Barnum with the “Light of Asia,” a baby elephant that had been painted with fifty coats of plaster of paris (and had broken out in blisters and sores). Barnum countered by claiming to have imported a white elephant from Burma for $100,000. It, too, was a hoax.

Capturing an elephant was the hard part. In the early 1800s, hunters in Borneo and Java often dug pits, covered them with poles and branches and laced them with food to trap elephants, but that was highly risky: an elephant who plunged into a deep pit could easily emerge with bruises and dislocated bones and often died from stress or self-induced starvation.

In Africa, native hunters sometimes used small dogs adorned with small wooden rattles or bells to track down elephants. The hunter would follow the sound of his dog’s rattle and set off on a shortcut to waylay the elephant.

Other hunters tracked down mother elephants who had babies by their side and weren’t able to escape quickly enough. While some of the hunters distracted the herd by chasing a single animal, others would hop off their horses, sidle up to the nursing elephants and sever the tendon in one of their hind legs. As the mother elephant, bleeding and hobbled, struggled to stand, the hunters would capture the baby and tie its legs. They would kill the mother, skin and eat her, and harvest her tusks.

The work was incredibly dangerous, often deadly, but importers didn’t care. “[Natives] don’t cost much—only five to six dollars apiece,” Paul Ruhe, a hunter with the Reiche Brothers, once told circus owner W. C. Coup. “The sheiks are paid in advance, and do not care whether the poor huntsmen get out of the chase alive or not.”

The human toll was worth it to obtain the prize—baby elephants. Hunters transported the young animals to a compound, confined them, and kept them alive with goat’s milk.

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Bradley

Foreword © 2014 by Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Foreword Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick xiii

Prologue 1

Capturing Elephants

1 Losing a Family 5

Tracking the Elusive beasts

2 Drawn to the Big Top 10

Rounding Up the elephants

3 Learning the ropes 25

Fooling the elephant

4 one-legged Stands 41

Long vOYAGE TO America

5 The hawthorn Five 52

Seesaws, Grass Skirts, and water skis

6 Life on the Road 60

Forcing elephants to Perform

7 Acting Out 78

Blocke and Tackle and Chains

8 A Sancturary Takes Shape 90

Coercion, Not Kindness

9 Trouble for Cuneo 105

"Bad" Elephants

10 Space and silence 122

Conquering an Elephant

11 The crackdown begins 134

Going Rogue

12 Mired in Bureaucracy 143

Hollywood Comes Calling

13 Setbacks in Illinois 157

The Tale of Baby Boo

14 Caravan to Freedom 167

Big Mary's Tragic Fate

15 The Start of a new life 178

The Short Life of Baby HUtch

16 The Conundrum of ZoOS 191

tHE Plight of Ziggy

17 Spotlight on Abuse 206

A New Wave of Elephants

18 Bad Days, Good Days 232

Chains, Hooks, and HOT shots

19 Unchained at Last 244

Index 309

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Last Chain On Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
misskitty26 More than 1 year ago
The book not only follows the harsh life of one individual circus elephant, but it supports the story with historical facts and glimpses into how elephants were viewed and treated throughout history. It's a touching story and an education into the lives of captive elephants all at the same time. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in elephants, likes a good story, or wants to learn more.
HOOFPRINTS More than 1 year ago
Impeccably researched on Elephant history. Wonderful book on Elephants, I live here in TN near the Sanctuary.  I loved reading the history of the elephants at the Sanctuary.  I will never look at a circus ad or commercial the same again, I feel ashamed I ever went to a performance with my child. I could not put this book down, its left me thinking long after I read the last paragraph.  Its sad, heartbreaking but some of the elephants have the storybook ending of happily ever after.  I could only wish they all would have a sanctuary waiting for them.