Workplace Culture

Topsy the Elephant and the Topsy-Turvy World of Animal Abuse

By James Tehrani

Dec. 11, 2013

If I could talk for the animals …

I’ve never really considered such a proposition, but thankfully author Michael Daly did when researching his fascinating book called “Topsy.”

It’s a tale of the elephant and the “Wizard” of electricity. It’s a heartbreaking, complex story of brutality that’ll make your jaw drop in disbelief.

While Workforce, of course, focuses on issues related to human workers, there are others in the workforce — namely animals — that don’t get the same attTopsy bookention.

Our tale begins in the mid-19th century. There were two circuses that competed to captivate the collective imaginations of circus-goers across the country. One was run by perhaps the most renowned “humbugger” of all time, P.T. Barnum, and the other by a circus owner named Adam Forepaugh, often referred to as “4-Paw,” who is not as famous today but was a well-known entertainment mogul at the time. He also was a master of humbuggery.

The two competed in cut-throat fashion. Indeed, when Forepaugh’s circus claimed it had the first U.S.-born elephant, a female named Topsy, Barnum put out a notice saying he would pay $100,000 for a real American-born elephant. Since both ringmasters of deception used the same German animal dealer, and Barnum had a better relationship with said dealer, P.T. was able to call 4-Paws’ bluff knowing Forepaugh wouldn’t be able to profit from his imported baby elephant.

Years later, as Barnum and Forepaugh continued to compete for people’s attention, another battle took place between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Known as the “War of Currents,” the two inventors went head-to-head to light up people’s lives — Edison backing direct current, or DC, and Westinghouse choosing alternating current, or AC.

During the power struggle, Edison was contacted about creating an electric device that could be used for executions. At first Edison declined, saying he was against capital punishment, but after further prodding — and realizing there was an opportunity to prove AC power was more dangerous than the DC poElephant 20th centurywer he was championing — he decided if capital punishment must exist, then it should be done as humane as humanly possible. To prove it, he sought out stray dogs and even a horse to be guinea pigs in the testing of his new AC-powered device.

From his experiments on these animals, the electric chair was born. And years later Topsy would meet her doom because of it.

On the early morning of May 25, 1902, James Fielding Blount, a known alcoholic, snuck into the circus and decided to torment the elephants, offering whiskey to the herd one by one until he got to a half-asleep Topsy. But the star elephant, who was no stranger to abuse, would not imbibe. It angered Blount, so he allegedly stuck a lit cigar into Topsy’s trunk. She, in turn, killed him. Not wanting to keep a “bad elephant,” the Forepaugh circus, which was then owned by James Bailey, sold Topsy to a group that helped turn Coney Island into a well-known attraction.

But Topsy was expensive to maintain. And an incident Topsy had with the Coney Island police, which was brought on by a ruthless trainer, made the elephant a big problem for her owners. So they decided to capitalize on the situation by staging and publicizing a live electrocution of an elephant on Jan. 4, 1903. They enlisted Edison’s help in creating the contraption. There is a video of it on YouTube, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Now I’m not what you would call an animal activist, but I do believe animals should be treated right. More than 110 years after Topsy’s execution, reports of animal abuse persist. For example, just this past week, a dairy farm in Wisconsin was accused of beating and prodding cows.

Humans use animals for many purposes in the workplace — from the dogs that guard sheep from predators to the elephants that perform tricks in the circus — and they deserve to be treated like any other employee: humanely.

As Daly’s book alludes, the best elephant trainer of the 19th century was a man who never got proper credit because of the color of his skin. Unlike Topsy’s other trainers, Ephraim Thompson taught her and other elephants to perform using “kindness rather than cruelty.”

Makes perfect sense to me, and you don’t have to talk with the animals to figure that out.

James Tehrani is Workforce’s assistant managing editor. Comment below or email Follow Tehrani on Twitter at @WorkforceJames and like his blog on Facebook at “Whatever Works” blog.

James Tehrani is the director of content strategy at FlexJobs.

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