By Tom Anderson
In May 2016, a child climbed into a zoo enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and was grabbed and dragged away by the enclosure’s resident, a gorilla named Harambe. Fearing for the boy’s life, a zoo employee shot and killed Harambe, sparking a tide of interest across the United States and beyond. Though primatologists argued the zoo employee had had no choice but to take his action, many were outraged at the incident and vigils were held worldwide in memory of Harambe. The outpouring of emotion led to a half-sincere, half-parodic series of internet memes in which Harambe was treated as a vastly important individual, and at one point beat third party candidate Jill Stein in a poll for the US presidential election of that year. While many people found this bad taste, others contemplated their navels and opined that the whole affair illustrated the shallowness of modern American (or general) culture. Surely in an age without the internet’s endless focus on triviality, such a cultural phenomenon could not have occurred.
Yet Harambe was very far from the first animal to be elevated over many humans in terms of their cultural impact on the world. He was not even the first gorilla. Long before the internet was anything more than a pipe dream at ARPA, generations of Britons grew up with a high regard for Guy the Gorilla, the most famous resident of London Zoo (1946-1978). Named for the fact that he had arrived at the zoo on Guy Fawkes’ Night (November 5th) 1947, Guy was frequently on television and always a favourite with children visiting the zoo—which unfortunately led to him suffering from tooth decay, due to the number of them feeding him sweets. For millions of British people of a certain age, ‘Guy’ will always be the default name for any gorilla they see, as integral as Fido for a dog. Guy was particularly popular as he was a gentle giant, studying small birds which would fly into his cage and land on his hands. His behaviour was studied by Dan Richter, who played (via a suit) the lead ape-man in the iconic opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he used Guy to inform his performance. He was also the chief inspiration for Not the Nine O’Clock News’ most famous sketch, though in that case the gorilla (played by Rowan Atkinson) had his name changed to the equally alliterative Gerald.
Guy died in 1978 during an attempted operation due to his tooth decay, but is today remembered by a statue in London Zoo. He is one of a number of animals who have more depictions in art than many of the Homo sapiens of this world. Another British example is Greyfriars Bobby (1855-1872), the loyal Skye terrier who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his master. Though the details of the story has repeatedly been challenged, he remains the most famous dog in Scotland, depicted in novels, films, a statue and many souvenirs sold to visitors to Edinburgh. As I covered in a previous article, another Victorian dog made famous by loyalty was Nipper (1884-1895) who was depicted by Francis Barraud listening to a gramophone record of the voice of his late master. The image, entitled His Master’s Voice, gave its name and logo to HMV in the United Kingdom and RCA in the United States. Throughout the world, millions of vinyl records and storefront logos bear the immortalised image of a terrier who will be remembered long after the master whose voice he listened to.
There are many other such animals that could be covered here, but we shall close with arguably the greatest of them all, who transformed the English language. Look at the title of this article. When you read it, did you immediately think ‘this must be a big article’? Of course; ‘jumbo’ is a common English synonym for ‘(unexpectedly) large’, a word which comes with comforting Victorian-Edwardian overtones. What else could it mean?
In my previous article on the impact of Popeye, I mentioned Popeye’s bizarre pet Eugene the Jeep, who can only say the word ‘jeep’. This word was made up as a deliberate nonsense word, like, say, ‘flarp’ or ‘zoink’. Yet, because the word later became applied to a vehicle (so named because, like Eugene’s fictional teleporting ability, it could get to unexpected places in World War II) we now cannot read it with its original intended nonsense meaning. We cannot stop ourselves picturing a jeep as in the vehicle.
The same is true of ‘jumbo’. In 1860 in what is now Sudan, an African elephant was born. He was captured by the hunters Taher Sheriff and Johan Schmidt, and sold to an animal collector named Lorenzo Casanova. The exact origins of his name are not entirely clear, but it is most likely derived from one of two Swahili words, either jumbe ‘chief’ or jambo ‘hello’. Casanova sold on Jumbo the elephant to a menagerie in Germany; he was briefly acquired by the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, but in 1865 was bought by London Zoo. Like Guy a century later, Jumbo became very popular with the British people. Also like Guy, he suffered from an inappropriate diet; to this day, British comics routinely reference ignorant people assuming that the natural diet of elephants is sticky buns (in reference to what visitors often fed Jumbo). The press made up stories of him being romantically involved with another elephant named Lucy, and for fifteen years he became the zoo’s most iconic attraction. Endless British cards and other souvenirs from the period memorialise him. He would routinely carry passengers around the Zoological Gardens, albeit probably more than he should have.
In part due to his diet affecting his teeth, Jumbo began smashing up his enclosure by night around 1880. In 1882, Abraham Bartlett, Superintendant of the Zoo, sparked controversy when he agreed to sell Jumbo for £2,000 to P. T. Barnum of the Ringling Brothers’ (Barnum and Bailey) Circus. A hundred thousand schoolchildren wrote to Queen Victoria begging her to block the sale, the Daily Telegraph led a campaign against it, the celebrated naturalist John Ruskin condemned the decision. But it went ahead.
Though fortunate enough to have been played by Hugh Jackman in recent years, the so-called ‘Greatest Showman’ was less than trustworthy. On acquiring Jumbo, he exhibited him at Madison Square Gardens in New York, easily recouping the price he had paid. Thanks largely to the star quality of Jumbo, the circus earned close to two million dollars (in 1880s money!) in its season following immediately after his acquisition. Never one to miss a trick, Barnum had Jumbo and other elephants parade across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884 to demonstrate its safety, as there had been a fatal stampede due to fears of its collapse. Like in Britain before, America embraced Jumbo wholeheartedly and depicted him on endless artwork and souvenirs. Barnum claimed, incorrectly, that Jumbo was the biggest elephant on Earth, which led to his name becoming a synonym for large.
Tragedy struck in 1885 when Jumbo was struck by a train and killed. According to Barnum, Jumbo had been attempting to lead Tom Thumb, a younger elephant who had incautiously crossed onto the tracks, to safety. As with Harambe a century and a third later, what seemed like the whole of America grieved his passing and commemorative souvenirs were produced. In Britain, of course, there was much ‘I told you so’ from those who had opposed Jumbo’s sale. Barnum, obviously, saw the profit even in this loss, separating portions of Jumbo’s corpse and displaying them in different cities across the United States. At Tufts University in Massachusetts, Barnum had paid for a museum hall to display the remains of his circus animals, and Jumbo’s remains were displayed there until the hall was destroyed by fire in 1975. His ashes were recovered and placed in an urn which remains on display. Jumbo became the mascot of the university and its athletic teams.
It is hard to exaggerate the cultural impact of Jumbo. Everything from the venerable Boeing 747 plane being dubbed a ‘jumbo jet’ to the endless statues depicting him on both sides of the Atlantic shows that he left a lasting mark on history. In 1941, Walt Disney released his fourth animated feature film, Dumbo, which stars the fictional son of Jumbo—properly named Jumbo Jr., but given the mocking nickname Dumbo due to his large ears. However, he eventually learns to fly by the aid of a ‘magic feather’ (which we eventually learn was just a symbolic crutch). The film also has a memorable surreal dream sequence when Dumbo accidentally gets drunk, which considerably influenced other animation of the period and later. Like other Disney animated films, Dumbo recently had a live action remake. Today it is not regarded as one of the upper-tier Disney films, although it was the first one ever seen by the author, at Christmas 1986. In its own time, it was a smash-hit success. Bizarrely, Time magazine, on choosing its ‘Man of the Year’ for 1941 (this was before it was changed to the gender-neutral Person of the Year) was planning to pick Dumbo as its ‘Mammal of the Year’. In a year which had included Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and other grand events, this illustrated just how much impact the film had had on the US. The plan was only changed at the last minute when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and America was drawn into the Second World War.
This does illustrate that modern complaints that Time have dumbed down their award (as in the case of their 2006 pick of ‘You’) are, as with claims about the furore about Harambe, driven by ignorance of the fact that people have always been people. Historical awareness teaches the lesson that one should always be sceptical of any claim that any supposedly reprehensible human behaviour is unprecedented. We can, however, hope that future generations will not mistreat animals so much in the course of making them eternal global superstars.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth