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Elephants never forget: Shirley and the circus ship fire

In June 1963, a ship full of circus animals burst into flames on the Yarmouth waterfront. Writer Sandra Phinney tells the remarkable story of one of those animals, Shirley the elephant.
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Beth Brook, daughter of photojournalist Bob Brooks: 'Some men had rifles — I guess waiting for lions and tigers to run amuck throughout the town.'  (BOB BROOKS PHOTOGRAPHY) 

By SANDRA PHINNEY

In the summer of 1963, the 59-metre Fleurus set out from St. Petersburg, Fla., on its way to Yarmouth. Over the next several days, the ship developed a list to starboard, the steering mechanisms broke down, a piston cracked, the radio died, the refrigeration gave out and the meat supply spoiled. On June 11, the Fleurus limped into Yarmouth Harbour, two weeks behind schedule.

Kelly Miller Bros. Circus owned the Fleurus, and Yarmouth was the first stop in a highly publicized Atlantic Canadian tour. Fifty-one performers were with the circus, along with several exotic animals. On the ship’s deck, small cages housing lions, tigers, a leopard and performing dogs were strapped down. Below deck, ponies, zebras, a llama with a newborn baby and a Brahma bull were cooped up and in dire straights. Three chained elephants struggled to remain standing on sloping floors, barely able to stand to full height because of the ship’s list and low ceilings.

Photojournalist Bob Brooks was on hand. He wrote about rotting chickens piled up to feed to the carnivores, and the hold that was full of dung and flies. The animals, originally intended to be at sea for a few days, had endured harrowing conditions for over three weeks.

Brooks recorded all of this in his notebook and on his camera, but little did he know what the next 48 hours had in store.

Eventually, the circus tent was hoisted; the personnel and the animals were transported to the site. People from Yarmouth and surrounding areas flocked to the circus. But one animal, in particular, stole their hearts — Shirley the elephant. She was 15 years old and seemed to ooze personality. Children and adults alike wanted to touch and get close to her. After her routines, she always got a standing ovation. Following the last performance, many people walked back to the ship with the elephants in order to have a little more time with Shirley.

Before departure the next morning, a fuel line burst on the Fleurus, spraying oil over the hot engines. A fire ensued, and as it progressed, the boiler pipes of the 37-year-old ship burst and dense smoke swirled throughout the ship. Firefighters raced to the scene.  

Bob Brooks was there, notebook and camera in hand. Later, he wrote a two-page spread in the Toronto Star Weekly that said, in part:  “While elephants trumpeted and lions roared as the smoke boiled around them, volunteer firemen fought the fire. Using a giant crane, construction workers were able to lift the caged animals from the canted deck, while men with high-powered rifles stood by to put the beasts out of their misery if they couldn’t be saved, or if they escaped from smashed cages.”

The photojournalist’s daughter, Beth Brooks, was also at the wharf during the rescue. Although only six years old at the time, Beth recalls bumping into a llama as the animals were being escorted from the ship.

“Some men had rifles — I guess waiting for lions and tigers to run amok throughout the town. I also remember how pathetic and destitute the circus performers looked on that day — some holding their little shivering show dogs.”

Adds Beth: “We raced home to get old towels and blankets for them and took stuff out to the exhibition grounds, where they were the following days, as they had lost everything.”

Jenny banged on the gate and tried to climb through and over. After several minutes, Shirley started to roar, and I mean roar!
— Carol Buckley, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

After the freighter sank, it was later raised and towed out to sea, where it now rests on the bottom of the ocean. The animals were transported back to Florida by trucks. On the way, the trailer carrying the pachyderms was involved in a crash and word got back to Yarmouth that the elephants had died. Everyone was saddened by the news, but for years, the story of the circus ship, the affection for Shirley and the bravery of the local firefighters and members of the gun club stayed alive in the minds of its citizens.

Fast-forward to November 2000, when Janice Stelma (a Yarmouth County Museum and Archives volunteer) noticed an inquiry on the Internet asking if anyone had heard of a circus ship fire somewhere in Nova Scotia. This eventually led to an amazing discovery: Shirley the elephant, at age 52, was alive!  

Although Shirley had survived the trailer crash back in 1963 and continued performing in circuses, she was attacked by another elephant in 1977. With a broken leg that did not heal properly, she could no longer perform and was placed in the Louisiana Purchase Gardens & Zoo in Monroe, La., where she lived in solitary confinement for 22 years. Fortunately, Solomon James, one of her handlers, heard about the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., and inquired about a future for Shirley there. The answer was affirmative.

On July 6, 1999, at age 52, Shirley arrived at the sanctuary.  That evening, another elephant called Jenny came to see the newcomer but quickly became agitated. According to Carol Buckley, co-owner of the Elephant Sanctuary at the time, the interaction between the two elephants was really intense. The staff feared that Jenny was on the attack.

“Jenny banged on the gate and tried to climb through and over,” Buckley said. “After several minutes, Shirley started to roar, and I mean roar! Jenny joined in.”

The interaction was dramatic, with both elephants trying to climb in with each other and frantically touching each other through the bars.

“I have never experienced anything even close to this depth of emotion,” Buckley said.

It didn’t take long for the staff to realize that the commotion was not an attack but the mutual joy of discovering a kindred spirit. They opened the gate so the elephants could be together. Later, it was discovered that Shirley and Jenny had worked in the same circus when Jenny was just a calf; it had been 24 years since they had seen each other. They became inseparable until Jenny’s death in 2006.  

Shirley, now 68, lives in peace with 14 other elephants in the 1,100-hectare sanctuary. She became a natural matriarch when she first arrived and is still the glue that keeps them all together. Meanwhile, folks in Yarmouth continue to keep tabs on her — and secretly claim her victory as their own.

Sandra Phinney (www.sandraphinney.com) is an award-winning writer who lives in Tusket River, Yarmouth County.



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