Ellen the artistic elephant mourned in Arkansas

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - Ellen the elephant, who painted and played the harmonica, was an Arkansas celebrity for nearly 57 years, so much so that mourners braved 100-degree heat on Sunday to attend a memorial service for her.

Ellen died on July 5 from a stroke or heart attack at age 60. For decades, children and adults visited the Asian elephant, celebrated her birthdays and watched her paint abstracts that were sold at zoo auctions to raise money for new projects.

Ellen arrived at the Little Rock Zoo in 1954 from New York via Thailand. She was purchased with funds from a local philanthropist who wanted the zoo's first elephant, Ruth, to have a playmate.

"Ellen had a mind of her own," said David Westbrook, a former zoo director. "She was a rebellious elephant but beloved."

Ellen and Ruth, who died in 1978 at age 65, were must-see attractions at the state's only public zoo.

Not only could Ellen paint and play the harmonica, she also played the piano. She enjoyed walking through the zoo each morning before it opened. Her keepers said that the elephant would purposefully walk over to see Sue, the white rhinoceros, and Sue would greet her.

Sissy Smith of Helena, Arkansas, drove more than two hours on Sunday to attend the memorial service. For her family, the zoo was a weekly family outing in the 1960s. During that time, visitors could feed the animals, and Smith often found herself letting Ellen and Ruth suck up peanuts from her hand.

"My dad used to pop these big bags of popcorn and even put butter on them," Smith said. "Then we'd go to the store and get bags of fruits. My dad even had some of the animals trained. They definitely knew who we were. Ellen and all of the other animals were like our big pets."

Another of Ellen's companions, Mary, died from cancer two months ago. The zoo acquired two new elephants, Jewell and Zina, in early June.

Ellen's keepers, who were with her when she died, were unable to hold back their tears as memorials were read about her quirky personality.

Ellen's capers kept her keepers busy over the years. She and a visiting elephant, Dolly, once unhinged their gate by removing the bolts and escaped to devour some crepe myrtle leaves.

"Ellen knew she was in trouble when she saw me," Westbrook said. "They went back in, and Ellen put the gate back up."

Another time, a woman standing in front of Ellen's display had some peanuts in her purse. Ellen grabbed the purse with her trunk and ate it. The woman claimed she had a $10,000 ring in the purse.

"For the next two weeks, you can imagine what the zoo keepers were looking for in Ellen's cage," Westbrook said. "They never found that ring."

(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)

Editor's Picks