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Murray Journal

When Murray met Dumbo: A tale of two unexpected Murray Park visitors

Nov 07, 2023 01:27PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

In 1940, Murray folks got a real eye-popper of a surprise. Instead of spotting their neighbor's errant cow in the alfalfa patch at Murray Park, they were met with the towering figures of two elephants—and not just any elephants—but Bunny and Willy. These jumbo-sized "lawnmowers," part of the Hildebrand Shows' traveling circus, decided to vacation in none other than Murray Park. Taking a pause from their showbiz life in the circus, they became temporary Murray-ites, or should we say, Murray-phants? Supervised by their trainers Steven Bernard and Jack Conklin, the duo turned the park into a live-action curiosity show, leaving locals scratching their heads in bewildered delight.

These traveling circuses were major entertainment events that moved from town to town, offering a variety of acts from animal performances to acrobatics and clown routines. Often, they were among the most exciting events in smaller communities that had limited access to other forms of entertainment.

According to the Murray Eagle, the trainers offered fascinating insights into the world of elephants. Mr. Bernard explained that an elephant's eye magnifies objects 22 times (in reality they have better peripheral vision as their eyes are on the sides rather than front of their head), suggesting a unique visual perspective that could affect their behavior in captivity. He also shared that elephants could live up to 200 years (science says otherwise—60-70 years) and were sensitive to noise, requiring consistent supervision especially during turbulent weather conditions.

While the occurrence was considered a delightful novelty in its time, it serves as an interesting point of reflection on how our understanding and treatment of elephants have evolved over the last eight decades. For example, the topic of elephant captivity and care has undergone significant changes.

During the era when Bunny and Willy grazed in Murray Park, the understanding of animal welfare was markedly different. Circuses were common entertainment venues, and little attention was given to the psychological and physical well-being of performing animals. However, advances in ethology—the study of animal behavior—along with a greater societal focus on animal welfare, have led to reformed practices in how elephants are kept and cared for.

Today, the inclusion of elephants in circuses has become a topic of public debate, leading to policy changes in many jurisdictions. Some circuses, such as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, have closed, in part due to the ethical concerns surrounding animal acts. Zoological facilities accredited by associations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums now adhere to more stringent guidelines for elephant care, which include providing more spacious and naturalistic habitats, social interactions, mental stimulation and specialized medical care.

After more than a century of tending to elephants, Utah's Hogle Zoo is taking a step by “pausing” its elephant care program. Following an extensive review, zoo authorities have decided to relocate Christie, a 36-year-old elephant, and her 13-year-old daughter, Zuri, to another certified zoo. The move aims to optimize conditions for their reproduction.

Also gone is the Salt Lake County Fair, where Bunny and Willy were initially scheduled to appear. The fair itself is a longstanding tradition, dating back to the early 1900s but was discontinued in 2020. It had served as a focal point for community engagement, showcasing local agricultural practices, crafts, and more recently, technology and educational exhibits. The county fairgrounds included a small arena and small display buildings where the current Murray Park Center now sits. The county fair moved to West Jordan in the 1980s. It offered a venue for residents to engage in a shared community experience, though the inclusion of animal acts like that of Bunny and Willy would be considered controversial today.

Interestingly, Mr. Bernard's temporary local stardom, changed the Murray Eagle’s conversation in 1940 to his perspectives on the "quality of womanhood in Utah," a topic that seems disconnected from the matter of elephant care. It is a telling reminder of the different social norms and discourses of the time, where such a topic might be introduced casually in unrelated contexts.

The case of Bunny and Willy serves as a historical touchstone in the changing attitudes and practices related to elephant care and conservation. While it is unlikely that Murray Park will ever again be the temporary home to roaming elephants, it also serves as a reminder that understanding and practices can evolve, often dramatically, as society gains new insights into the complexities of the natural world.λ