Siri the Elephant’s Long Road to 50

Siri the Elephant, 2017

Syracuse is known for a lot of things –  Typewriters, Salt, the Brannock Device, Franklin Automobiles, and yes, elephants.

The first may be the world’s most well-known elephant – Dumbo. Created by Helen Aberson, she and her husband, Harold Pearl, collaborated on a children’s story, which would be sold to Disney in the late 1930s for $1,000. Disney went on to release the story on film in October, 1941 to accompany their Golden Book series and the rest is history.

The second is The Rosamond Gifford Zoo‘s Siri, who turns 50 years old this Saturday, the same day as the Zoo’s annual Asian Elephant Extravaganza.

Siri is the zoo’s original Asian elephant, and her impact has been felt across generations of zoo-goers. She arrived in the fall of 1972 after being purchased from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo at the age of four and a half. In a July 1977 edition of The Downtowner, Carol Louise Clark asked Sam, one of Siri’s handlers, if the elephant was fully grown. “No,” Sam said, “she’s only nine years old. She’s really just an adolescent. She’ll get to be about 60 or 70 years old. They develop about the same rate as people.” Around the same time, reports began to surface of a “Siri(ous) problem – “Syracuse just isn’t big enough these days for the young lady who during the last year gained over 900 pounds and grew a foot,” an article stated in 1976. When she arrived in Syracuse, she weighed 2,250 pounds. By 1975, she was nearly double that weight, weighing in at 4,200 pounds. Siri was so large in fact, that she couldn’t fit through the 35-inch wide, seven-foot tall door. Despite a new opening to the tune of $2,000 installed in 1976, more help was needed for Siri and the rest of the Zoo, which at this point was, “going downhill fast,” according to the Zoo’s Director in the mid-1970s, John Gray.

The new opening, which was celebrated in 1977 with Siri doing tricks for the public and, of course, a special cake, was only the beginning of the necessary changes that needed to take place. According to a Post Standard article published in 2016 by Johnathan Croyle, “The Humane Society of the United States had called it one of the worst zoos in the country, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture was ready to order it closed.”

But help was on the way.

Onondaga County had taken over management from the City of Syracuse in 1979, who said they couldn’t make the improvements. County Executive, John Mulroy, said, “The zoo is at the stage where we must do something or close it.” But, by 1982, the county had come up with a renovation plan that was approved by the County Legislature and, over the next few years, almost $3 million was raised by the Friends of Burnet Park Zoo and the county contributed another $10 million to the project.

Burnet Park Zoo Opening August 2nd, 1982

In May of 1982, County Parks Commissioner, James Johst, stated that the Burnet Park Zoo will be closed for 2 and a half years beginning in the fall of that year. The Post Standard’s Robert W. Andrews reported on May 25th, 1982 that, “the plan is for most of the zoo’s animals to be sold, shipped elsewhere or just put out to pasture when construction begins.” Zoo Director, David Raboy, said “the best and more unique of the zoo animals will be brought back.” During the renovations, however, Siri, along with the other Zoo animals, needed to find temporary residence. Although Siri would leave Syracuse before winter, she wouldn’t catch a break from the cold. She went to the Buffalo Zoo and would be one of the animals to return after renovations were complete. Raboy, in regards to Siri, said, “we hope that either she comes back pregnant or we will purchase a second elephant.

On June 6th, 1985, Siri, now 17, returned to Syracuse after two and a half years in Buffalo. During that time, the Burnet Park Zoo had acquired three other elephants, 8 year old Romani, 28 year old “Babe” from the Metro Miami Zoo in Florida, and 13 year old “Indie.” On August 2nd 1986, the new Burnet Park Zoo officially opened its doors to the public with Romani the elephant (photo, left) officially breaking through the ceremonial ribbon. The opening drew a crowd of over 12,000 people for the weekend.

Things were looking up for the newfound matriarch of the Burnet Park Zoo elephants.

In 1991, Siri was the featured artist at the Burnet Park Zoo from June 9th to June 31st. Willem de Kooning, a renowned abstract artist said this of Siri’s work, “That’s a damned talented elephant. By then, Siri had been painting for a decade.

Siri’s fame wouldn’t stop there, though. In June, 1996, the now 28 year old Siri “tried her trunk” at acting, staring in a Discovery Channel film, “The Ultimate Guide: Elephants.” The documentary was part of a 10-part natural history series that aired the following year. Ian Duncan, who worked on the film as part of Windfall Films, said Siri was “marvelous.” What attracted them to Syracuse? “Siri, known for her easygoing temperament and good training; and the zoo’s growing reputation for working with and breeding endangered Asian Elephants,” Mark Weiner of the Post Standard wrote in a June 1996 article.

In 2002, health issues began to gang up on the 35 year old Siri, including a breathing problem and arthritis. In 1993, veterinarians did exploratory surgery on Siri, finding a large, bony tumor in the center of her skull. Unfortunately, it was inoperable and expected to grow. Through all of this, though, Siri was patient and, at the time Jim Reilly’s article in the Post Standard was published, her condition appeared to be improving.

Tomorrow, Siri turns 50 and is as playful as ever (see the video below). The zoo has created a facebook page for Siri so her fans can stay updated on Summer of Siri events.

Happy Birthday, Siri. The Onondaga Historical Association hopes for many more.