Sheila the Elephant. Plenty of animals have been made famous in the movies. Rin Tin Tin, a German Shepard who roamed from town to town, was big from the mid to late 1950s.
Flipper was a decidedly smart and friendly dolphin who starred in his own TV series that still floats around YouTube. And of course who could forget Lassie, that beautiful Collie who befriended boys and girls and starred in his own movie with Elizabeth Taylor.
There was even an elephant, Dumbo, who was made famous in several animated Disney movies, that were remade in 2019, although not successfully.
And then there was Sheila. Sheila was an Asian elephant who lived at the Belfast Zoo, first arriving in the early 1930s. When WW2 broke out in Europe in 1939, Shelia and her fellow “zoo-mates” were in grave peril from bombing. So too would residents be if they were to escape – wild animals on the lose.
To the horror and chagrin of citizens across the city, many were put down. The rationale at the time was that, if the Nazis bombed the zoo and the animals broke free, folks would be in danger from wild creatures roaming the streets. Consequently, a tiger, hyena, six wolves, two polar bears and many more were euthanized – 33, in total.
Sheila, However, Evaded This Fate
Her keeper was an Irish woman named Denise Weston Austin. She became employed at the zoo in 1940, because – as was the case with so many jobs – the men who usually held the zoo-keeping posts were off fighting in the war.
Denise gladly took the work, which paid her 15 pounds a week to feed animals, clean cages, and tend to their overall needs each day.
Denise was, according to her neighbours, something of an odd lady. She took to her charges like they were her own children, and was panicked at the idea that so many were going to be killed.
She couldn’t save them all, but there was one – Sheila – who was one of Denise’s best buddies. Before the war broke out, they walked together in nearby farm fields so that Sheila could get the proper exercise she needed.
Rather than see Shelia perish, Denise chose to take her home to her place on Whitwell Road in North Belfast. Denise did this without checking with the head zookeeper Dick Foster, deciding it was better (and easier) to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Sheila spent most of her time in the backyard and garage, enjoying sacks of hay from the family’s farm and a bucket of water Denise kept full. Neighbours became accustomed to seeing the pair walking up and down the street, and came to have great affection for the docile animal.
But the war could not be kept at bay forever, and one day in 1941, during what came to be known as the Belfast Blitz, the area was struck by German bombs. Denise and her charge were safe, but a street close by was blasted to oblivion, and all those living there were killed instantly.
Nonetheless, in spite of the never-ending threat of German planes flying close overhead, Denise and Sheila survived the war. The zookeeper later became known as “The Elephant Angel,” and her profile rose as she received mentions on the BBC and in other media outlets.
Articles were written telling the story of these two, along with a book and even an opera.
Sheila became even more famous when an Irish film company told a version of her life story in a movie called “The Zoo,” which began filming in 2016 in Ireland and Canada.
According to the Belfast Telegraph the movie idea came after a story about Belfast Zoo’s request for information on the elephant angel appeared in this newspaper.
The production was developed after the Belfast Telegraph appealed for the woman to come forward. “People came forward who remembered the story and they discovered who she was,” said Ms Jackson.
“Austin died in the 1990s and the elephant survived in to the 1960s.
“We have changed it slightly, in that we’ve taken it from the perspective of three children who go and rescue the elephant and bring it to the lady’s house.”
Liberties were taken with the story, as they invariably are. In the celluloid tale Shelia was rescued by a young boy and several compatriots. Saved from almost certain death at the hands of Ireland’s enemies.
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Sheila the elephant lived until 1966, when a skin condition led to her death. Her “angel” Denise Austin, died in 1997. Wholly unaware that her story, and the story of her charge during the WW2, would one day be seen in movie theatres around the world.