27/03/2009

Belfast's War Time 'Elephant Mystery' Solved

The story of one of Belfast Zoo's World War II animal's survival has been uncovered - just in time to highlight the north Belfast facility's 75th anniversary.

An appeal was launched to find the woman who looked after a baby elephant in her back garden during the period around the Blitz, (picture from Belfast Zoo). The young elephant escaped an order to euthanise some of the zoo's more dangerous animals in case they escaped during an air raid, by the simple process of being taken to the home of a keeper every night - unofficially, of course.

After a public appeal, the 'Elephant Angel' was named today as Denise Weston Austin who, along with her mother Irene Beatrice Mary Austin, cared for Sheila the elephant. Denise was one of Belfast Zoo's first female keepers, earning the substantial sum of £15-a-week at a time.

Ms Austin died in 1997, however her cousin David Ramsey, of Belfast, remembers her well: "Denise was eccentric and lived in a rather exotic home in north Belfast called Loughview House," he said.

David revealed on BBC Radio Ulster and the Belfast News Letter today that Sheila the proboscidea stayed with his cousin in the evening: "When the head keeper, Dick Foster, left work, Denise took Sheila from her enclosure, walked her a short distance to her house at 278 Whitewell Road and walked her back up to the zoo in the morning, sometimes stopping at a shop, the Throne Stores, on the Whitewell Road for stale bread.
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"During the night Sheila slept in the Austins' garage," he said, revealing that it was after the young animal had been terribly frightened by the noise of anti-aircraft guns that Ms Austin decided to act in her own independent way.

Zoo staff didn't know about Sheila's home-from-home until she chased after a dog into a neighbour's garden.

This happened during the by-now routine morning walk up the lightly populated lower Cave Hill slopes.

However, once the homeowner sought compensation for the animal breaking their fence, Sheila's bed and breakfast accommodation days were ended.

After her evening activity had been discovered, Sheila had to stay in the zoo, as the head keeper used a personal padlock to end the nightly excursions.

More than 20 of the zoo's animals were eventually 'put down' during the Belfast blitz of 1941 for fear that they would break free and attack the public.

These fears were very real. During the infamous Easter 1941 German Blitz a direct hit on a house at what is today school gates at 74 Whitewell Road killed all the occupants.

It was just a mile from the zoo and a few hundred yards down the road from Ms Austin's home.

Terrified residents fled down the Whitewell Road looking for shelter as bombs fell with 170 being injured, 46 fatally.

But thanks to her kindness, the elephant was saved, and lived on for a quarter of a century.

However, there must have been some sadness, as the caring keeper's cousin revealed that the beast would follow her around "like a pet dog" such was her devotion to her one-to-one keeper.

Denise's fondness for Sheila continued as she visited her in the zoo at night during the air raids where she rubbed her ears to keep her calm.

As BBC Radio Ulster's Wendy Austin (no relation) commented today on air: "You couldn't make it up," speculating that the wartime story could well end up as a film.

(BMcC)

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