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


Anonymous said...

Hello Cilla McQueen
I live in Ohakune and my Teacher is Mrs George and I learnt about the elephant a couple of years back by a family friend and i am doing a cushion and we have to do it based on a local story and i choose mine about Mollie because i have always been intriged and amazed at how an elephant is such an amazing story anyway we have to do a story on the elephant and this has proven to be very helpful thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hello Cilla,
In 1957 our family of 5 kids lived in the railway house over the fence from the place where Mollie died.(the house no longer exists- it was moved when the mountain road was relocated further away from the river and at the same time went over Mollies approximate grave site)
I was about 12 then, and have never forgotten the sadness of her death.
To look into that helpless eye of such a huge and glorious creature,was terrible.
I have thought about writing a childrens picture book about her,though it is a sad topic for little children.
My mother did whatever she could to help the Bullen circus family by loaning our hose and buckets etc for water they needed (and making scones to cheer them up somehow!) later Mrs Bullen send my Mother a lovely bracelet as a gift made of elephant hair.
The elephant was buried in a hopelessly shallow grave and within a month the smell across our back yard was horrendous..I recall Mum wrote to the Health dept with indignant descriptions! I now live in Ohakune again. Martin Edmonds Father Trevor Taught me at Ruapehu College the following year.My name at that time was Vera Brailey.

crown lanta koh lanta said...

That is an interesting story. Though what happened to Molly has been unfortunate, her remains now serves to educate people about elephants and their protection.

Anonymous said...

How old resident of Ohakune now residing in Flaxmere Hastings just this morning recounted to my brother & I the 1957 story of the elephant buried in Ohakune, so 'google here I come'! What a truely amazing story & to also know her name...RIP Mollie your memory lives on xox