When you read the history of elephants in America, you may cry.
You may chuckle, too.
It’s that kind of story – poignant and humorous by turns.
But, if you ask author Ronald B. Tobias, there’s one other reaction he would like to see from readers of his new book, “Behemoth.”
It’s merely this: reflectiveness.
“I’m a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Tobias, with a chuckle, on the phone with The Buffalo News.
“The message I’m trying to send is, ‘Elephants deserve good treatment.’ ”
Tobias’book – a nearly 500-page nonfiction work that was released in October by Harper Perennial – is the February selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.
It’s a story that is, at bottom, a sad one, according to Tobias.
In history, he said, there are “winners and losers.” And, he added: “When you look at the story of the elephant in the United States, they’re losers.”
Tobias, who recently retired from his position as professor of science and natural history filmmaking at Montana State University, spoke with the Book Club from his home in Philipsburg, Mont., a town of about 800 people. He said he originally aimed to explore the history of elephants in this country as a film.
“Somewhere along the way, I came across this story of the elephants in America,” said Tobias, who worked as a producer for the Discovery Channel for 15 years. “And I pitched it as a film idea.”
That proposal didn’t work out.
“But the idea never went away,” he said.
The research project turned into his latest book – which is titled “Behemoth,” after one of the appellations for the giant beasts, and subtitled “The History of the Elephant in America.” Tobias said the book took him about a year to complete.
“The most challenging part of it was separating what likely has happened from all the hype,” he said.
“Behemoth” proceeds in roughly chronological fashion, relating the vivid sagas of the elephants brought to the United States for various purposes over the years – starting in the earliest days of the country.
Many of those early elephants were imported for use in shows, circuses and money-making ventures, as Tobias relates in the book. (Although some people tried to convince the American public that elephants were going to be used for – of all things – farming. In one 1855 stunt recounted in Tobias’ book, P.T. Barnum had an elephant hitched to a plow on his farm in Connecticut, and used to have the animal “plow” the earth vigorously whenever trains were passing by. The sight netted much media coverage.)
These stories can be surprising in their tragedy, as Tobias’ book chronicles.
For instance, the book recounts the story of Jumbo, the celebrated African elephant who was kept in England starting in 1864 and beloved by the British people, especially young children.
Jumbo was purchased by Barnum in 1882 and shipped to America – the elephant was greeted in New York with roses and chocolate – and he became a star of Barnum’s circuit of shows and exhibits. Jumbo made as big a hit with the American public as he had in England – until his violent death, a few years later, when he was struck by a freight train in Ontario, Tobias writes in “Behemoth.”
Though the beloved elephant didn’t perform in this country for long, Tobias said, Jumbo made an indelible imprint – even on the language.
“There’s no question about it, because the name is still a part of everyday speech,” said Tobias. “The name has moved beyond the elephant itself to mean just giant size.”
“Like Jumbo shrimp,” he added.
In a strange twist, as Tobias details in his book, the remains of Jumbo were gathered and taken to an expert on taxidermy, who turned them into two artifacts: a large “manikin” of the beast, composed of Jumbo’s skin stretched and preserved; and secondly, a display of the elephant’s bones.
“This is pure Americanism,” said Tobias, of the final fate of Jumbo’s body. “Jumbo turns into two – the one with the skin, and the one with the skeleton.”
Circuses in this country in the 1800s could be brutal places for elephants, Tobias said.
“I would describe it as uniformly bad,” said Tobias, of the treatment of elephants in circuses of this period. “With a few exceptions.”
One exception might well have been Matthew Scott, the keeper of Jumbo, said Tobias.
“Most people didn’t have that level of insight,” Tobias said, of Scott’s protective care of the famous elephant. “Their task was to break an elephant. To make it perform. The way they used to break elephants was atrocious.”
As part of the menageries of some early circuses, elephants would fall through bridges in small towns as they walked from place to place, Tobias’ book recounts. Elephants also were killed in circus fires and train accidents. One circus elephant, Black Diamond, was shot to death in 1929 after killing a woman in Texas.
“It was a revenge killing on Diamond’s part,” said Tobias, of the case of Black Diamond and the female victim. “But it cost him his life.”
Tobias said that he has seen African elephants in the wild, on trips to that continent.
Those experiences taught him a tremendous amount about the creatures, he said.
“It takes on a whole new meaning when you see them in the wild,” said Tobias.
Tobias said his experiences with elephants in Africa, as well as his research for “Behemoth,” have led him to the belief that zoos are not the best homes for these giant creatures.
“I am not a believer in zoos for certain species of animals,” he said.
As always, The Buffalo News Book Club is interested in your thoughts on this month’s selection, as well as suggestions for future reads. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail at The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.