In the elephant barn at the Houston Zoo, a flock of swallows stitched the high rafters, while below, several more pecked at puddles of water between the feet of three pachyderms waiting for their morning feeding and bath. The muggy summer air was pungent with the smell of manure and wet hay. Along one wall sat plastic buckets filled with thick chunks of carrots and turnips. In this cavernous space, closed to the public, I focused on a young elephant called Tupelo—or “Tupe,” to her handlers. With the help of two zookeepers, I was about to assist with her bath. Using a wooden brush, I carefully drew soapy circles against Tupelo’s sturdy body; the stiff hairs that stippled the ridge of her back felt coarse under my fingertips. As she was hosed off, rivulets of foamy water traveled down the narrow valleys of her wrinkled gray skin. I had never been this close to such a magnificent animal. I was mesmerized.
Over the following years, I would often return to this day in August 2013. That short bath was our only shared experience, but I began to think of Tupelo (named, by the way, after Van Morrison’s song “Tupelo Honey”) as my elephant. I held her in my imagination as I worked on my debut novel, inspired by the true story of Denise Weston Austin, a caretaker at the Belfast Zoo who became known as the Elephant Angel after the German bombings of the Northern Ireland capital during World War II. Though I took some creative liberties with the book, much of the narrative follows what happened to Austin and Sheila, the elephant she protected. In my version, the young zookeeper is named Hettie, and her charge, Violet, is a three-year-old Asian elephant—the same age and species as Tupelo. As I worked through many drafts of the novel, I recalled every detail of washing her, and it helped me write about Violet with clarity and precision.
Like many fiction authors, when I started my project, I had no idea where the research and writing would take me. I first heard about Denise Austin and the Belfast Blitz on the radio in 2009 but didn’t pursue it until a few years later. I was interested in exploring how I might be able to draw from my experiences of living in New York City during the attacks on the World Trade Center. As someone who is unable to have children, I also wanted to investigate the bond between a childless zookeeper and the animal in her care.
In July 2013, my husband and I left our home in Austin to travel to Belfast, where I interviewed survivors of the Blitz and visited the zoo. There, a curator recounted the history of the attraction, which opened in 1934, and told us about the four nights of Luftwaffe bombings in the spring of 1941, with the one on the evening of Easter Tuesday being the most devastating. The Ministry of Public Security, concerned about the danger if the animals were to escape, ordered the euthanization of a number of zoo animals, including bears and wolves (fearing for Sheila the elephant, Austin hid her in her home at night). During my two-day visit, I observed the elephants from a distance, but that wasn’t enough. When I returned to Texas, I researched elephant exhibits at U.S. zoos and was happy to discover that the Houston Zoo had a robust program to study and breed the animals. A month later, I visited for the first time, which is when I met Tupelo.
Covering 55 acres in Hermann Park, the Houston Zoo, which marks its centennial next year, is home to more than six thousand animals from about seven hundred species. Before the pandemic, it drew more than 2.4 million guests a year, making it one of the most visited zoos in the country and a popular cultural attraction in Houston. (During the pandemic, visitors are required to make reservations online and wear masks.) Four years ago, the zoo’s McNair Asian Elephant Habitat doubled in size after a renovation that included the addition of a seven-thousand-square-foot barn for the bull elephants and an enlarged habitat with a 160,000-gallon pool. That expansion stands in contrast to many other zoos across the country, where elephant exhibits are diminishing—or disappearing. Since the early nineties, about thirty zoos, including those in Detroit and San Francisco, have shut down their elephant exhibits, in part because of the costs of keeping elephants healthy, more stringent regulations requiring that the large mammals be given increased space to roam, and pressure from animal activists.
Twelve Asian elephants now reside at the Houston Zoo, five more than at the time of my 2013 visit. In addition to Tupelo, I met the rest of the herd that morning, including her mom, Tess. Small petals of faded pink pigmentation decorated the length of Tess’s wrinkled trunk (an indication of her age, 29 at the time). Asian elephants have smaller bodies and ears than their African counterparts, and they tend to have more hair. (According to National Geographic, the population of Asian elephants has decreased by about 50 percent over the past 75 years; an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 live in the wild.) I was also introduced to another three-year-old, this one a male named Baylor (after the nearby Baylor College of Medicine, a longtime collaborator of the zoo).
Tupelo was immediately charming. She gathered a bundle of hay in the curl of her trunk and tossed it upward. Much of the straw landed on her head, creating a self-made crown. As I quickly learned from the zookeepers, the trunk of an elephant is as agile as a hand. It can pick up something as small as a sunflower seed or a raisin, but it also has the suction power of a vacuum cleaner. On this morning, Daryl Hoffman, who carries the impressive title of large mammal curator, produced a harmonica from his pants pocket and gave it to Tess; she easily handled the small instrument with her trunk and blew into it, high-pitched notes lifting into the musty air.
I wasn’t there just to observe the elephants; for my book, I needed to understand the role of their caretakers as well. Hoffman moved among the elephants like the veteran he is. When I returned to the Houston Zoo a few months later, I spent several more hours observing the care and training of the herd. This time, Tess was pregnant and was scheduled to undergo an ultrasound. It required a team of four zookeepers, clad in plastic smocks and long plastic gloves, to perform the challenging task of cleaning out her rectum before the exam and keeping her calm. When Tess was ready, the zoo’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Joe Flanagan, maneuvered the imaging machine until a grainy picture appeared on the screen. “There’s the baby elephant,” he said, with a trace of joy in his voice.
When Flanagan had completed the exam, Tess swiftly unfolded herself from the wet floor. As a reward, she got a large pumpkin, which she cracked open with one foot before collecting bits and pieces of the orange flesh with her trunk. After the morning feedings, the herd of elephants lumbered out into the exterior yard, giving visitors what they came to see. Along a bank of windows on the far side of the yard, schoolchildren pressed their faces against the glass in awe and delight, hands cupped around their eyes, as they took in the majestic creatures.
Recently, I talked again with Hoffman about his relationship with the elephants. “I’ve worked with a lot of different species over my thirtyish years in the business, and there is no bond that even comes close to what you have working with elephants,” he said.
Hoffman also told me that Tess’s pregnancy in 2013 had sadly ended in a miscarriage but that she later gave birth to another calf, Tilly. Now she’s not only pregnant with another, due in April, but she just became a grandmother. On March 10, Tupelo, who is now ten, gave birth to a 284-pound baby girl, Winnie, after a nearly two-year gestation period. (Because Tupelo is related to all the male elephants at the zoo, she was impregnated via artificial insemination.) The addition of Winnie makes the Houston Zoo one of the few in the country to host three generations of an elephant family. “The fact that we have a multigenerational family group . . . provides the elephant with so much diversity and enrichment,” Hoffman explained during our recent Zoom interview. This breeding success allows zookeepers and veterinarians to work closely with the Baylor College of Medicine on research that can contribute to the welfare of Asian calves both in captivity and in the wild.
Spring is considered the season of birth and renewal, so I find it fitting that my novel, The Elephant of Belfast, was published in early April. After six years of research and writing, I’m excited to finally introduce readers to Hettie and Violet. And now that I’m newly vaccinated, I hope to return to Houston and congratulate Tupelo on her new baby.
S. Kirk Walsh is an Austin-based writer, editor, and teacher. Her debut novel, The Elephant of Belfast (Counterpoint Press), was released April 6.
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Muses at the Zoo.” Subscribe today.