Remembering an elephant rampage in Altoona




The circus elephant paced the landing outside the Jaffa Mosque in Altoona, Pa. Police formed an uneasy line around the perimeter of the venue’‍s lawn, rifles at the ready.

It was a cloudy, cold day in April 1993, and Tyke the elephant had just run around the circus ring, slapped a baboon and burst through a building’s front door, tearing off part of the wall above the door.

For about an hour, the elephant paced as her trainer fed her apples and carrots. The incident ended with Tyke allowing herself to be led back inside.

No one was hurt, including the 3,000 to 4,500 schoolchildren who had evacuated the building, but things took an much uglier turn the next year in Honolulu.

In that incident, in front of a circus audience, Tyke burst into the arena kicking her groom.

Her trainer tried to intervene, but she threw him to the ground and stepped on his head, killing him instantly. She then ran outside to the busy streets of Honolulu’s commercial district.

After a chase through the city, police cornered the animal and shot her 86 or 87 times until she sank to the ground, still alive and moving. Local zoo officials then gave her a lethal injection.

An Australian documentary due out next year charts Tyke’s story, showing news footage and interviews with many of the people who worked with the elephant.

“So many people were affected by her life,” said Susan Lambert, one of the project’s producer/​directors.

Ms. Lambert and Stefan Moore produced and directed the film, “Tyke: Elephant Outlaw,” and Megan McMurchy co-produced it. They all worked for Jumping Dog Productions near Sydney.

They are scouring Western Pennsylvania for any video or home movies of the Altoona incident and are asking people to contact them at megan.mcmurchy@bigpond.com if they have any footage.

The trio wanted to tell Tyke’s story without an agenda.

“We never saw this as an animal rights campaign,” Mr. Moore said. “We wanted to go inside the industry, but what ultimately might evolve from this is the most persuasive film about how we treat animals and who we are as a species. We have seen ourselves at the top of a great chain [of animals], and I think that awareness is changing.”

Among the people interviewed for the film was Tyrone Taylor, the trainer who had calmed Tyke during the Altoona incident.

He and other people close to Tyke considered her an edgy animal, even among African elephants, which are bigger and considered more aggressive than Asian elephants.

More than being edgy, Tyke had a history of running away during performances and hurting people.

“Tyke was, one handler said, an unhappy elephant,” said Mr. Moore. “She never had a good day.”

Ms. Lambert, however, did not lay blame for Tyke’s rampage on her personality nor on abuse, although there were such incidents in the elephant’s past.

What Ms. Lambert learned in making the film was that “elephants are not cuddly things. They are killers, and the whole idea of having them in captivity is insane.”

“Just keeping an elephant in captivity is abuse by definition, regardless of how they’re trained,” Ms. Lambert said.

The issue of the treatment of elephants will likely soon be moot.

U.S. and international endangered species laws prevent the importation of elephants. And U.S. zoos’ elephant breeding programs have failed to produce enough elephants to replace the ones aging and dying off.

“We’re at the end of an era,” Mr. Moore said.

Tyke’s death brought to the fore a debate about whether wild animals should be used for entertainment.

Honolulu tried unsuccessfully to ban wild animal acts. No animal acts came to Honolulu after Tyke’s death until this year; the Moscow Circus is to perform Oct. 3-5.

Lions and tigers will be performing but no elephants.

Laura Malt Schneiderman: lschneiderman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1923.

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