Shirley — A Place in History

Shirley was one of dozens of circus animals rescued from a vessel destroyed by fire in Yarmouth harbour.

We are grateful to Bob Brooks/Yarmouth County Museum Archives,
Nova Scotia, Canada for these photographs.

Shirley (on the left) shares a bucket of water.
Shirley, on the left, shares a bucket of water

 

Shirley (on the left) aboard the ship
Shirley (on the left) on board the ship

 

The ship sinks
The ship sinks

Residents never forgot elephants

One of three pachyderms that are part of Yarmouth folklore has been located: Shirley, last survivor

September 19, 2001
Richard Foot, National Post

HALIFAX - For thirty-eight years the people of Yarmouth, N.S., have been talking about elephants—pecifically three Asian elephants who came to town on board a circus ship in 1963, and were rescued from the vessel when it was destroyed by fire in Yarmouth harbour.

The animals were marched from the ship through groups of gawking fishermen and awestruck onlookers.

Firemen rescued tigers, llamas and leopards, too, but it's the fate of the elephants that has long intrigued the locals.

After the fire, dozens of the exotic animals were loaded on to trucks and driven back toward Florida, home of the Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus.

En-route, the trailer carrying the elephants crashed, and news reached Yarmouth that the pachyderms who survived the fire had perished on the highway.

"That's the last we heard," says Laura Bradley, archivist at the Yarmouth County Museum, who says the tale of the three elephants has remained a popular part of Yarmouth folklore.

Today, however, the tale has changed. Ms. Bradley has learned that one of the beasts from the 1963 fire is alive at an elephant refuge in the deep, verdant woods of western Tennessee.

Her name is Shirley—she is an old and haggard creature—but her existence and whereabouts have electrified the staff at the Yarmouth museum.

"I was surprised and thrilled to know she had survived," says Ms. Bradley. "I had written those elephants off when I read they'd been in a road accident. I felt it was the end of their story. But now the story lives on."

Yarmouth historians and staff at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Ten., are eager to swap notes. The museum has archival photographs of Shirley's dramatic rescue from the circus ship; the sanctuary has the remaining details of Shirley's extraordinary life.

Says Carol Buckley, director of the sanctuary: "The museum has a booklet on the fire and photographs -- I'm very anxious to get any of that, it's part of Shirley's history."

News of Shirley reached Yarmouth through the Internet when a museum volunteer received a message from someone who had stumbled across the Web site of The Elephant Sanctuary.

The sanctuary claimed it had an old elephant that once survived a ship fire in Nova Scotia.

"I went to the Web site," says Ms. Bradley, "and when I read Shirley's story, I sobbed."

The elephant's biography, pieced together by the sanctuary from a succession of zoo and circus owners, says Shirley was taken from the wild as a calf and sold to the Kelly-Miller circus. For the next 25 years she trained and travelled across North America, often in wretched conditions, entertaining crowds under the big top. She was in Havana in 1958 when Fidel Castro seized power.

In June, 1963, the circus loaded Shirley and a menagerie of other animals on a cramped and ramshackle steamship, the Fleurus, for a summer tour up the East Coast of Canada. After three harrowing weeks at sea, the Fleurus reached Yarmouth, first stop on the tour.

Bob Brooks, a celebrated Canadian photographer who started his career in Yarmouth, recorded the visit with photographs and a diary that remain in the care of Ms. Bradley.

"He went on board when the ship arrived," she says. "It was listing badly to starboard, there were rotting chickens being fed to the carnivores, the place was full of flies and dung. The elephants were chained and struggling to stand straight on the tilting ship. Bob said they looked poorly."

The next day a parade of animals -- elephants, bears, llamas, zebras, lions, and cheetahs -- performed for the curious in a nearby field. After the show they were caged back up on the Fleurus, where a fire broke out in the engine room. There was a desperate effort by firefighters to release the live cargo from the ship, while local hunters stood guard with rifles in case an unruly animal bolted into the town.

"The sight of elephants, zebras and the leopard being walked along the wharf, with the chaos of the fire in the background, is something that Yarmouthians have never forgotten," says Ms. Bradley.

Brooks' photographs of the event made a two-page spread in the Toronto Star's weekend magazine.

The circus tour was abandoned and the stranded animals were eventually trucked back to the United States.

Although the elephant trailer did crash in a traffic accident, at least one of the elephants obviously survived.

Ms. Buckley says Shirley toiled in circuses until 1977, when another elephant attacked her and broke her hind leg.

Now a cripple, she was transferred to a Louisiana zoo, where she lived the next 22 years alone in a small, solitary compound, allowed not a breath of contact with her fellow kind.

In 1999, the zookeepers sent her to The Elephant Sanctuary, a private, 300-hectare haven established especially for sick or unwanted, female elephants.

When Shirley arrived there, she was 52, on the brink of old-age. Today she wanders freely and keeps the company of six other cow elephants, including Jenny, a younger animal Shirley first met in a circus barn.

Last year National Geographic featured Shirley in The Urban Elephant, a TV documentary on captive pachyderms.

Ms. Buckley says producers may want to do a follow-up program, after learning about the rich new details of the Yarmouth fire.

As for Ms. Bradley, she says she now has a complete and happy ending to add to the strange story of the circus ship that caught fire in Yarmouth harbour.

"Shirley is a symbol of hope," she says. "Every time I see an animal in a circus, I think maybe they, too, will have a happy ending and find their sanctuary."

The Fleurus was the last circus ship ever to reach Yarmouth. In 1997, the town became the first in Nova Scotia to ban all circuses, travelling by land or sea, with exotic animals in tow. Although at least four circuses still tour Canada each year with elephant acts, twenty-five other municipalities across the country—in British Columbia, Quebec and Newfoundland—no longer welcome them to town.