Gunda the Elephant: A Early Animal-Rights Story

A sketch from the New York Times showing Gunda the elephant chained in his cage

Gunda the Elephant: A Early Animal-Rights Story

This sketch illustrates the size of Victorian zoo cages
This sketch illustrates the size of Victorian zoo cages

Visitors to zoos today see animals housed in large enclosures where the creatures have room to play, exercise and interact with their own kind.  This wasn’t always the case.  More than a century ago, animals were kept behind bars in small cages.  Sometimes the situation was even worse, as with Gunda the elephant, an inmate at the Bronx Zoological Park in 1914.

Newspaper accounts vary, but Gunda was somewhere between 16 and 19 years old in 1914.  He had been brought from India a decade earlier when he was not yet fully grown.  Newspapers called him the world’s largest pachyderm, and he was 9.5 feet tall and an estimated 9,000 pounds.

Children rode on his back when Gunda was first brought to the zoo.  But in 1908, he began to exhibit “irksome behavior” and, from 1910 onward, was considered dangerous.

For a while, an old lady visited him, but she stopped visiting and his behavior grew worse.

A Distempered Elephant

Gunda with a zoo employee and his favorite visitor, the old lady
Gunda with a zoo employee and his favorite visitor, the old lady

Three zoo employees in particular made Gunda angry.

For a while, he loved keeper Bill Thomas but eventually grew hostile toward him, one day striking him in the shoulder and nearly trampling him.  Gunda pierced Thomas with his tucks twice in the left leg.  Another keeper, Dick Richards, saved Thomas by stabbing Gunda with a pitchfork.

After that, no one could enter the cage, and Gunda was not permitted to associate with the zoo’s other elephants.

A noose was built and hung from the top of Gunda’s cage.  Once he was snagged, zookeepers secured Gunda’s neck.  He then was chained to the floor of his cage by two legs and had nothing but a brick wall to look at.

Zoo Director William Hornaday said it was for the public’s safety, and it was either this or Gunda would need to be shot.

Gunda remained chained for two years before gaining the attention of the national press.

“There are many causes of distemper among elephants,” the St. louis Post-Dispatch said.  “Sometimes it is because of age, sometimes because of ill treatment.  It is not age that caused Gunda’s meanness, nor is it ill treatment for he has never been abused.”

A Potential Solution

A sketch from the New York Times showing Gunda chained in his cage
A sketch from the New York Times showing Gunda chained in his cage

William Snyder, head keeper at the Central Park Zoo, oversaw the execution of numerous rogue elephants in his 27-year career.  The most famous being Tip, who was given cyanide twice in 1894 and took two days to die.

“Yes, I’ve been reading about Gunda,” Snyder told the New York Times.  “It is just such an argument as they had down in Washington a short time ago.  They had a bad elephant in the zoo down there and was going to shoot him.  But the newspapers and public got interested, and it ended in a bit of money being appropriated to build a special house for him, and now he runs around without any chains on.”

Snyder said he took the Central Park Zoo’s two elephants out for daily walks,  This stopped them from growing restless and gave them exercise.

Elephants born in captivity have the worst temperaments, Snyder said. This is because as babies they get played with and they get close to people.  It made it hard for them to cope later.

Reporters told the public that Gunda could expect to live an additional 60 years or more chained to the zoo floor.  This prompted many solutions to the problem.

In a letter to the editor, New York Times reader W. R. Hotchkins had an idea.  He suggested Gunda be given a mate, and that both elephants should be placed in a sunken enclosure.  This enclosure would be several acres and contain water for drinking and bathing.

“After construction of such a home for Gunda and his mate, the public should have exceptional facilities provided for seeing Gunda’s jungle quite comfortably and perfectly safely,” Hotchkins said.

Such a facility, he said, would provide zoo visitors with entertainment and education.

He is a Murderous Brute

Visitors to a zoo around the turn-of-the-20th-century
Visitors to a zoo around the turn-of-the-20th-century

Hornaday said such an enclosure wouldn’t be appropriate for an elephant and became angry with the Times.  The newspaper published many letters to the editor as well as articles about animal experts, all of whom said Gunda was suffering and a better solution could be found.

Hornaday called Gunda a murderous brute and vicious.

“There is no pleasure in seeing a ponderous elephant chained to the floor of a small room, unable even to walk to an fro and never permitted to roam at will in the open air and sunlight,” Hornaday wrote the Times.  “It is no wonder that dungeon-kept elephants go mad and do mischief.  If an elephant – or for that matter any other animal – cannot be kept in comfortable captivity, then let it not be kept at all.”

The Times questioned “comfortable captivity,” but Hornaday stuck by his words and said if the press and public would leave the zoo alone Gunda could be cured.

The reporter also inquired about the many solutions posed for Gunda including creating a pen specifically for him and using large metal plate doors to separate Gunda from keepers.

“Oh, it could be done,” Hornaday said.  “It might take six months’ work and would probably cost $1,000.  But rather than rebuild the zoo to accommodate one bad elephant I should prefer to kill him and get a new elephant in his place.”

A Sad End for Gunda the Elephant

Gunda the elephant
Gunda the elephant

People wrote to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and said Gunda would be better off if he were killed than to continue suffering.

“Curious is the reflection upon human logic which could punish an elephant for life for because he revolted at an environment so artificial that he has to lose the very instincts of his species before he can become thoroughly acquiescent,” the Austin American said.  “And yet all that Gunda wants is to become an elephant once more, such as he was born to be, and his incorrigibility is no more than the measure of that desire.”

Valued at $10,000, Gunda’ loss would be a financial hit to the zoo, but it was one the zoo was willing to take.

On June 22, 1915, Gunda was shot in the head and killed.

He was dissected in his cage.  The skin, valued at $9 a square foot, and skeleton were to be mounted for the American Museum of Natural History. His soft tissue were sent to a medical college or fed to the zoo’s lions.

“Director Hornaday came to the conclusion that Gunda’s ugly temper was getting worse,” the Wilmington News Journal said.  “The elephant ceased to take food and his desire to kill grew stronger.  Accordingly the executive committee of the park decided on Gunda’s execution.  Mr. Hornaday and Keeper Thurman didn’t feel like being present at the death.”

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Updated:  27 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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