the ohakune elephant

posted by Michele

There’s an elephant buried in Ohakune. The locals know about it, and some of them were there in 1957 when Mollie, one of nine elephants touring with Bullen’s Circus, ate poisonous tutu and died. An account of her death appeared in the NZ Herald 18 December 1957 where Derek Challis, then a technician with the zoology department at the University of Auckland, read it and requested permission from the circus owner and government officials to remove the elephant’s skull for the university’s biology museum. Permission was given and Derek caught the train to Ohakune a couple of days later. With the help of locals Eric Fetzer and Peter Jenkins, the elephant was exhumed, the head cut off and cleaned then railed to Auckland where it was prepared for display as part of a teaching exhibit about elephant dentition. When the biology museum was disestablished in the mid 1990s, the dentition display disappeared.

Martin Edmond was a five year old living with his family in Ohakune at the time of the elephant’s death. Over the years he told the story to many people, without knowing exact details or that the head had been removed. When he started to research Bullem’s Circus last year, Australasian circus historians told him there was no record of an elephant death at Ohakune. But teacher and historian Merilyn George interviewed half a dozen residents who took her to the gravesite and were in no doubt about the circumstances of the poisoning.

It seemed time to tap institutional memory. I said I would ask after the skull and went over to the School of Biological Sciences earlier this year with photographer Tim Page. Fortunately, the biologists were able to locate the dentition display, locked away in a dark cupboard. But they knew nothing about the provenance of the two skulls it contained. We took a lot of photos and I sent two off to Martin in Sydney captioned: ‘Maybe this is Mollie?’

It was. She was upside down and minus her display stand, but she was there. The biologists contacted their retired colleague Joan Robb to get a positive identification. Joan described the bleached colour of the skull and a knife cut in the bone (Mollie was 13 when she died and her bones were relatively soft). Plans were put in place to bring Mollie out of the cupboard in time to coincide with Martin’s visit to Ohakune and Auckland at the end of August.

The upshot was Mollie and Friends: On the Track of the Ohakune Elephant, an afternoon of talks and readings in the Old Biology Building at the University of Auckland, 28 August 2008. It was an extraordinary event. Joan Robb spoke eloquently about the founding of the museum by Professor WF McGregor. Mandy Harper and Mary Sewell showed archival images of the Lippincott-designed building and its displays. Derek Challis and Peter Jenkins reconstructed the exhumation and decapitation with gripping detail. Martin and his sister Frances Edmond spoke about the circus tour and the impact of Mollie’s death on Ohakune. Some of our poetry students read the archived news reports. Tim and I retraced the trail that led to the discovery in the cupboard. Everyone trooped along the hallway to see Mollie now restored to daylight, and then Martin’s new book of poems, The Big O Revisited (Soapbox Press, 2008) was launched in the SBS foyer.

What next? Mollie’s skull is back on display in the Old Biology Building. Her unmarked grave in Ohakune is the subject of conversations about how to commemorate what happened and to connect up the parts of a story that begins in northern Thailand in 1947 with the sale to Stafford Bullen of not one but five baby elephants for shipping to Perth.

More about Mollie and Michele at the McGregor Museum

Photographer: Tim Page