An Elephant Never Forgets

The adage that an elephant never forgets seems very appropriate given the following accounts.

The scientific elephant now displays his sagacity and the uncommon improvement of his natural powers, at Pidcock’s Grand Menageries, Exeter ‘Change, Strand, where, at the desire of the company and command of the keeper, he exhibits a perfect knowledge of the value of different pieces of money; tells with the greatest precision the hour and minutes of the day, when shown a watch by any of the spectators; locks and unlocks doors, takes off and puts on any lady’s or gentleman’s bonnet or hat, that he may be requested of him, with a great and pleasing variety of other performances. His improvement in the space of the last six months exceeds all belief.

Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

In another story to confirm that an elephant never forgets, we offer this account which was reported in an English newspaper, although the event took place in Paris, 1799.

A sentinel on duty at the menagerie, agreeably to the orders he had received, was always particularly careful to caution the visitors not to feed the elephants. However, his behaviour was not calculated to gain him the favour of the elephants. One of the females especially resented his officious zeal to enforce his orders and several times she attempted to correct his bad habits by throwing water on his head with her trunk.

A few days ago, a great number of people came to see the elephants, which the latter considered a fine opportunity to receive, by stealth, plenty of scraps of bread. Unfortunately, for her, however, the officious sentinel was on guard that day.

The female took her station beside him, watched all his words and gestures, and the first time he began to give his usual notice she squirted him in the face with her trunk full of water much to the immense amusement of the audience. The sentinel quietly wiped his face and retiring a little way, he continued to give his notice to everyone informing them not to give any bread to the elephants and the elephants were likewise instructed not to take any.

This time, however, the female was ready and waiting, she took hold of his musket, whirled it around with her trunk, then trod on it, it was not until she had twisted it like a screw did she return it.

Destruction of the noble elephant at Mr Cross's, Exeter 'Change
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole

From the Bath Chronicle of August 1791, we offer a somewhat tragic story.

Among the elephants that were sent to Madras with the troops in 1781, under the command of the late Colonel Pearce, there was apparently one keeper who it was reported was quite neglectful and who pilfered from his drams on the line of march. Upon every such occasion, the elephant discovered signs of anger and resentment, as if he was insensible to negligence, nor ignorant of the mal-practices, of his keeper.

One morning the cattle etc. were ordered to be mustered for review and when the commanding officer, in going along the line, passed in front of the elephant, the animal roared out as if to attract the commanding officer’s attention. When he caught the eye of the Colonel the elephant took hold of his keeper with his trunk, put him under his feet and instantly crushed him to death.

The elephant then immediately fell upon his knees and salaamed to the Colonel for pardon. The singularity of this act induced Colonel Pearce to make an immediate enquiry respecting it, when he learnt that the elephant had been forced, contrary to his natural disposition, to inflict this punishment on his keeper, for the incorrigible neglect he was prone to commit and the frauds practised on his daily allowance. Unfortunately, we do not know the outcome of this investigation, but punishment had already been served.


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