Arts and Culture

June was a bad month for elephants in Colorado -- and not just the political kind

This will be a bad week for some of the elephants in Colorado's Grand Old Party: three of the four candidates -- Tom Tancredo, Mike Kopp, Bob Beauprez and Scott Gessler -- running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination will be sitting on the sidelines after Tuesday's primary, while one will get to charge ahead toward November.

But June was a bad month for real elephants in Colorado, too, the ones not involved in politics. Although bison are this state's largest and most storied native mammal, elephants have have a 150-year-old connection to Colorado as well.

See also: Joyride Brewing will make up for lost Edgewater mural with craft beer, great views

Elephants have been making their way west since at least the 1860s with touring live-animal shows and circuses, including Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. They've also held a celebrated status for decades at the Denver Zoo, where two residents, Dolly and the late Mimi, were known for their artwork.

The latest proof is the zoo's Elephant Passage, the largest elephant habitat in the country. The zoo spent three years and $50 million creating the twelve-acre park, which opened in 2012 and is designed to hold up to twelve male elephants.

But for many decades in Denver, there has been an urban legend about elephants living in what is now the Barnum neighborhood in west Denver. Although it is almost certainly not true, the lore went that circus master P.T. Barnum, whose daughter lived here, kept the animals there. And then there's the drawing of an elephant pushing a train car through the snow that appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1883.

In 1891, the Rocky Mountain News reported on a tragic accident involving an elephant named Roger who was giving rides at a circus/amusement park called Manhattan Beach -- located on the banks of Sloan's Lake in what is now the city of Edgewater.

"At a little after 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon at Manhattan Beach, George W. Eaton, the 6 yr. old son of Pressley Eaton, was trampled upon and instantly killed by the elephant 'Roger.' The animal had become frightened and broken away from the keeper, throwing the boy from his back where the lad was riding with companions. The other children escaped without serious injury. The keeper, wounded and bleeding from a blow from the trunk of the frightened brute, heroically endeavored to restrain the animal and called to the crowd to keep back and not add to the excitement of the aroused beast," the article read.

"In the meantime, by the active prodding of his keeper, the beast was quieted for a moment and all the children save one slipped from his back," it continued. "The animal was brought to his knees, and the other child, a boy, was taken from the seat. At the first dash of the beast, the great crowd scattered as best they could to places of safety. Men rushed wildly about hardly knowing what to do, and the scene was one of wildest excitement."

As a result of the incident, Roger was killed by his handlers. Some people say that he was buried at what is now 20th Avenue and Depew Street, but construction there in 2002 turned up no elephant bones. (A mural depicting the amusement park and Roger was recently painted over on the corner of 25th Avenue and Sheridan by the new tenants, Joyride Brewing. But the brewery, which plans to open later this summer, is honoring Roger in its elephant logo.)

Nothing like that happened last weekend at the Colorado Renaissance Festival, which takes place every year in Larkspur, but people are still bringing elephants to Colorado, and they are still offering elephant rides. Last week, Animal Defenders International -- which has a video called "No Fun for Elephants" (above), said it had filmed those elephants being beaten by their trainer and said it would protest the festival.

"We are appealing to the public not to pay to ride abused elephants. Paying for the rides pays for this appalling and unacceptable cruelty," ADI president Jan Creamer said in a statement. "We believe that once people see how these animals suffer behind the scenes, they will not endorse such behavior and hope that event organizers will take a responsible position and end the rides."

Elephant rides "have recently been abandoned by several events after responsible board members viewed the evidence, including Orange County and Los Angeles County Fairs, the city of Fountain Valley, CA, and Santa Ana Zoo," the organization said.

And that wasn't the only bad news for pachyderms in the state.

According to 9News, Joni, "an elderly elephant being relocated from South Carolina to Colorado Springs to receive geriatric care at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, died in transit Sunday." Joni, who had lived at the Greenville Zoo for 44 years, was being moved so she could socialize with other elephants.

9News quoted the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as saying that "having an animal pass away during transport is a rare occurrence."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes

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