The Story of Shirley “The Urban Elephant” After 30 Years In The Circus

Occasionally there are happy endings for the animals used in circuses and zoos. Allison Argo’s Emmy Award–winning PBS documentary, “The Urban Elephant,” tells the story of Shirley, who arrived as a baby from Asia and spent 30 years in the circus till a leg injury ended her “career.” Unlike a professional human athlete or performer, she didn’t get a cushy job in a broadcasting booth. As thanks for her years spent entertaining children she was retired to the Louisiana Purchase Zoo. There she lived for 22 years, in a concrete stall with a small grass yard, never seeing another of her own kind. Female elephants desperately need the companionship of other elephants—but that was barely known when Shirley arrived at the zoo. In 2003, however, the people running the Louisiana Purchase Zoo decided they could no longer give Shirley a home and agreed to send her to what the documentary calls “a little piece of heaven carved out of the rolling hills of Tennessee.” The Elephant Sanctuary, founded by Carol Buckley, provides hundreds of acres where elephants wander or freely enjoy their heated barn.

Solomon James was Shirley’s keeper at the zoo for 22 years. He clearly loves her. In the film he says he spends as much time as he can with her so that she doesn’t feel all alone, and we see him bathing her and talking to her with great affection. We watch as he accompanies her to her new home in Tennessee. Then with tears in his eyes he says to the camera,

“I am going to miss her. But when I saw this place I told her that there will be no more chains. She is free now. I don’t know who was the first to put a chain on her but I am glad to know I was the last to take it off. She is free at last.”

Then he says, “I am going to miss you, Shirley, my big girl.”


A video clip from the “The Urban Elephant” documentary showing Shirley and Jenny reunite has long gone viral, a classic among animal videos.

The elephants at the sanctuary come into the barn one by one to greet the new arrival, who is at first in a separate pen. They touch trunks through the bars—it looks like kissing. When an elephant named Jenny arrives, there is an uproar. Carol says she has never heard anything like it. The trumpeting goes on through the night. When Carol comes into the barn the next morning she finds that in their desperation to get close to each other, Jenny and Shirley have bent the steel bars between them.

Carol did some research into their backgrounds and found that 30 years earlier they had worked together in the same circus. Jenny was just a baby, and Shirley would have been like a surrogate mother.

At the sanctuary they became inseparable. We see them walking, resting, and bathing together. The documentary’s final shot is of them standing in the middle of a sunlit field, looking together at their new home, with their bodies pressed against each other. They have woven their trunks through each other’s front legs as if they are attempting to bind themselves together.


Author: Karen Dawn

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