In a morning address to students at Unicoi County High School and at lunch with the Kiwanis Club, Bradley shared the story elephant abuse in America and her book on travails of Billie, one of 10 retired performing elephants that live at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee at the heart of the town’s fundraising revival.
A native of Kingsport who left a successful career in journalism to pursue her interest in animal welfare, Bradley began her comments to the Kiwanians by sharing her opinion that Erwin does not deserve the infamy the 1916 hanging of Mary the circus elephant forever attached to it.
After all, Bradley said, it was her own hometown that demanded Mary’s execution and the execution of elephants who killed handlers, as Mary had done, was not an uncommon story in that day.
Erwin, she said, just happened to be the town with railroad crane powerful enough to accomplish the death penalty that was cast on Mary before she was brought here.
Ironically, Bradley said, her grandmother witnessed Mary’s killing of her handler as a girl growing up in Kingsport. It was the retelling of the violent events of that day that first peaked her interest in elephants and their violent relationships with humans.
Fast forward several decades and Bradley was a seasoned journalist with year of animal law study under her belt, a book on puppy mills in circulation and a lingering concern for the ugly history of elephant abuse in America she wanted shed light on.
As she set out to write the story, Bradley said, “I needed a happy ending.” And it was that need to give her readers hope after a long tale of violent abuse that led her to the elephant sanctuary at Hohenwald.
At Hohenwald, Bradley said, the sanctuary recommended Billie for her story because of the particularly harsh treatment the old elephant’s testy demeanor had caused her to endure,
The relevant history she shared was that elephants do not naturally walk alongside human beings and do so in circus performances only because it is beaten into them as babies; and the old saying that “a class horse moves at the mere shadow of whip” is also true of elephants and the bull hooks used by their handlers.
Her story of Billie began in India where the young elephant was separated from her mother and a herd of aunts and cousins at age 4 and brought to a zoo in Massachusetts to live a solitary life performing simple tricks and giving rides to children.
At 10, Billie was sold and trained to do more difficult and bone-wearing feats of balance with a troupe of five elephants that traveled with a Shrine circus. For the next 23 years Billie was on the road, continuously performing, traveling in cramped trailers and enduring the extra dose of verbal and physical punishment leveled at her because of her feistiness.
In 1994, a federal regulator recognized the danger in Billie’s demeanor and ordered her and seven other performing elephants be taken off the road. With that order Billie was moved to a small corral in an uninsulated barn in Illinois, where she spent the next 11 years.
Finally in 2006, Billie was brought to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where her post-traumatic stress and the deprivation of the society lacking a herd caused her to isolate herself and stand alone in the woods and observe the other elephants from a distance.
As years passed, Billie made friends but her protectiveness of a chain around her right front foot continued to frustrate the sanctuary staff who could not coax her to let them to remove it.
While Bradley declined to reveal the story’s end, she did tell her audience that The Elephant Sanctuary meticulously documents everything the elephants do.
As for Erwin, Bradley applauded the town for owning the dark chapter of Mary’s hanging and for stepping ahead with larger cities across the country that have taken action to right the decades of wrong suffered by captive elephants.
Bradley also noted the upcoming performance of the Shrine circus in Johnson City and encouraged her audience not to attend, and instead support the Shriners’ work for children in need of medical care by direct donations. She closed by saying she would love to see the Shrine organization be the next to end wild animal performances in their circus.
Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.
This story has been revised to correct the number of years Billie spent in a barn in Illinois.