Some years ago, archivists at Belfast Zoo came across an unusual set of photographs. The grainy black and white shots showed two women with a young Sheila the elephant, not in the zoo but in a back yard.
The elephant looked to be enjoying a drink from a tin bucket at the back door of the house. To mark the zoo’s 75th birthday in 2009, the hunt began for the ‘Elephant Angel’.
The care provided by our mystery lady is unique to zoo history and we would like to make contact with her family and properly document this gap in our past.
Mark Challis, Belfast Zoo Manager, 2009
Public Safety Fears
In 1941, there were fears that many animals in the zoo could be dangerous in the event of escape during the Belfast Blitz. The Ministry of Public Security ordered the killing thirty-three animals.
On 19th April 1941, Mr A McClean, head of the Air Raid Precautions, Constable Ward of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Sergeant EU Murray of the Home Guard oversaw the operation.
The animals destroyed included a hyena, six wolves, a puma, a tiger, a black bear, two polar bears, a lynx, racoons, and a vulture. One animal who would come to no harm and survive the war was Sheila, a baby Asian elephant.
Not only was the zoo in the line of attack of Nazi planes, but the loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire terrified many of the animals.
Belfast’s Elephant Angel
With help from the public and local media, Belfast Zoo identified the mystery woman as Denise Weston Austin. This was North Belfast’s ‘Elephant Angel’ who brought Sheila the elephant back to her home each night for safekeeping. The older woman was Irene Beatrice Mary Austin, Denise’s mother.
Denise was one of Belfast Zoo’s first female zookeepers. At the time, many men were off fighting on the fronts of Europe and North Africa. Women progressed into several jobs that were more often seen as male-dominated. In fact, Denise’s own father, Jack Austin, may have served in India as an officer in the cavalry. She earned £15 per week for her work at the zoo.
Belfast solicitor David Ramsey, a second cousin of Denise Austin provided the zoo with more details on the unusual story. His cousin was an eccentric woman, who lived in an exotic, red brick house at 278 Whitewell Road, North Belfast. It was known as Loughview House.
The threat to the animals in the zoo was very real. In fact, Austin’s home was not a much safer location. During the Easter Tuesday Raid of 1941, a direct hit from a German bomb killed all occupants of 74 Whitewell Road. This house was just a few hundred yards away from that of Denise Austin. In that single raid, 170 people were injured and 46 were killed as they fled seeking shelter.
Sheila’s Escape To Freedom
The zoo’s head keeper was a man named Dick Foster. While normally a meticulous man, it seems he was unaware of Sheila’s forays into North Belfast. He was used to the sight of Denise walking around the zoo with Sheila in tow. The two would walk across nearby farmland for exercise. Eventually, Foster was more accustomed to seeing Sheila the elephant outside her cage than in.
After he left work each day, Denise would walk Sheila the elephant from her cage the short distance to the house. Each morning, Sheila and Denise walked back to the zoo, stopping at Thrones Stores on the Whitewell Road for stale bread.
By night, Sheila slept in the Austin’s garage. Sheila ate hay from the family farm outside Belfast. During the rationing era, this was a better quality meal than the zoo could have provided.
Sheila The Elephant Caught
Staff at the zoo only became aware of Sheila’s second home when she chased a dog through a fence into a neighbours garden. The neighbour sought compensation from the zoo for a broken fence and reported the event to Foster at the zoo. After months spent with the Austins, Sheila the elephant remained in the zoo overnight. Foster saw to this by personally padlocking her cage.
As the explosions from the Nazi Luftwaffe engulfed the city, Denise would spend time with Sheila at the zoo. She would visit at night during the raids, rubbing the young elephant’s ears to keep her calm.
Sheila the elephant lived for another 25 years in Belfast Zoo until her death in 1966 after a skin complaint. Denise Weston Austin died in 1997 and knew nothing of the global reach of her story.
A Tale Worth Telling
The tale captured the public’s imagination and received mentions of the BBC and other media. It has inspired theatre shows, an opera, a feature film and is the inspiration behind Michael Mopurgo’s book ‘An Elephant In The Garden’.
Morpurgo, the former Children’s Laureate, published ‘An Elephant In The Garden’ in 2010. He had heard the story of Denise Austin on late night radio. The author has written over ninety titles including ‘War Horse’, which became a Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie.
He took the decision to reverse the story, setting it during the Allied bombing of Dresden. The zookeeper’s daughter is Elizabeth. Marlene is the elephant in the German tale.
Sheila Treads The Boards
In 2012, Scottish Opera produced a 50 minute show called ‘Elephant Angel’. While the staging company were Scottish, the production was a Northern Irish affair.
Writer Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast. Scottish Opera’s Composer in Residence, Gareth Williams, comes from the Co. Armagh village of Richhill.
It is such a sweet story, and I don’t think people quite realise that it’s a true story as well. Everyone loves elephants so I think it has a real heart. That story, just that act of kindness in taking this elephant home during the Blitz and during a difficult time. So I think people are really captivated and intrigued by it and I think it’s a story that could only happen in Belfast.
Gareth Williams, ‘Elephant Angel’ Composer, 2012
‘Elephant Angel’ showed at Belfast Festival in the Grand Opera House on Tuesday 23rd October 2012. The following Friday, the cast played to the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, Co. Tyrone.
Elephant Angel In The Movies
The movie entitled ‘Zoo’ based on the story of Sheila and her ‘Elephant Angel’ began filming for five weeks in Belfast on 22nd August 2016. The movie’s budget was between £2.8 and £4 million and it features an all-Irish cast and crew.
Among the big names involved in the project are Art Parkinson of Game of Thrones with Dame Penelope Wilton, Ian McIlhinney, and Amy Huberman. The film will be written and directed by Colin McIvor. Ballymoney man John Leslie is named as a producer.
Settings included the zoo, the grounds of the nearby Belfast Castle, and the docks next to HMS Caroline. The zoo scenes included both new and old sections of the site. Some existing 1930s cages were renovated and redressed to create authentic animal enclosures. Streets in North Belfast including Union Street and Little Donegall Street were transformed into Blitz-era Belfast for filming.
Filmed in Belfast and Canada
Keen-eyed Belfast residents won’t have seen an actual elephant on the streets. A large object covered in a green sheet was pushed around. Sheila will make her appearance in the CGI stages of production.
Further shooting took place in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Hamilton has been chosen as it still retains red-bricked terraced housing similar to that of 1940’s Belfast, and due to its proximity to a 4-year-old elephant living in African Lion Safari in Toronto. This elephant has been used before in films and commercials and will play the role of ‘Buster’.
The charming movie is set to feature at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. The film received funding from the Irish Film Board, Northern Ireland Screen, and the British Film Institute. More than £12,000 was sourced by an online public fundraising appeal.
We have changed it slightly, in that we’ve taken it from the perspective of three children who go and rescue the elephant and bring it to the lady’s house.
Katy Jackson, Producer, 2016
A Story For All The Family
In ‘Zoo’, the action takes place in the eyes of a 12-year old boy named Tom. Along with the help of friends, he sets out to save the elephant.
The story has captured the hearts of people across the world and we have no doubt that the movie will continue to inspire people with this heart-warming tale,” he said.“ It has been a pleasure to see the story come to life throughout the filming and we can’t wait to see Belfast Zoo on the big screen.
Alyn Cairns, Zoo Curator, 2016
With the tale now told in many different ways, and a movie set for a worldwide release, it seems the story of Sheila the elephant and Denise the Elephant Angel will be told for many more generations to come.