Belfast Blitz: Sheila the Elephant

In 1941, as the Belfast Blitz unfolded, a remarkable story was taking place at Belfast Zoo. This is the story of Sheila the Elephant and her keeper Denise.

Some years ago, archivists at Belfast Zoo came across an unusual set of photographs. The grainy black and white pictures showed a pair of women with a young elephant. The location was not the zoo but the back yard of a typical Belfast house during the Second World War.

The elephant looked to be enjoying a drink from a tin bucket at the back door of the house. To mark Belfast 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

Shiela The Elephant

Shiela The Elephant became a familiar sight on the Whitewell Road in North Belfast as Zookeeper Denise Austin brought her home to protect her during the Belfast Blitz. Copyright Belfast Zoo.

In 1941, the threat of an aerial attack was becoming more likely. April of that year saw the beginning of the Belfast Blitz. Belfast Zoo at Bellevue in North Belfast escaped serious damage during the raids. However, authorities feared the risk of animals escaping in the event of a further attack was cause for concern. To protect the public from the threat of wild animals fleeing through a broken perimeter, the Ministry of Public Security ordered the killing of 33 animals.

On 19th April 1941, Mr. A. McClean, (Head of the Air Raid Precautions), Constable Ward (Royal Ulster Constabulary), and Sergeant E.U. Murray (Home Guard) oversaw the operation.

The unfortunate animals included a hyena, 6 wolves, a puma, a tiger, a black bear, 2 polar bears, a lynx, raccoons, and a vulture. Of all the beats in the zoo, an animal who would come to no harm and survive the Second World War was Sheila, a baby Asian elephant.

Feeding Time At The Zoo

A group of children feed one of the young elephants in Belfast Zoo at Bellevue in the north of the city. The zoo opened to the public in 1934. Copyright Belfast Zoo.

Finding the Elephant Angel

In 2009, with help from the public and local media, Belfast Zoo identified the mystery woman in the photographs as Denise Weston Austin. This was North Belfast’s ‘Elephant Angel’ who brought Sheila the Elephant back to her home for safekeeping during April 1941. The older woman pictured 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 Belfast 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, Belfast. Locals knew the place as Loughview House.

Atlantic Avenue in April 1941

Belfast Telegraph Photo: The junction of Atlantic Avenue and Ponsonby Avenue just off the Antrim Road in North Belfast. This street corner was the site of an air raid shelter which took a direct hit killing all inside.

The threat posed by aerial bombing to the animals in Belfast Zoo was very real. As too was the distress caused by the loud noises of explosions and Anti-Aircraft fire. However, Denise Austin’s home was not much safer. During The Easter Raid, a direct hit from a High Explosive Bomb killed all occupants of 74 Whitewell Road, Belfast. This house was a few hundred yards away from that of the Belfast Zookeeper.

The Great Elephant Escape

Belfast Zoo’s Head Zookeeper was a man named Dick Foster. While normally a meticulous man, it seems he was unaware of Sheila’s forays into North Belfast. However, 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 became 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 Belfast Zoo, stopping at Thrones Stores on the Whitewell Road for stale bread.

By night, Sheila slept in the Austins’ garage and ate hay from the family farm outside Belfast. During times of rationing, this was a better quality meal than the zoo could have provided.

Austins and the Elephant

Zookeeper Denise Austin from North Belfast and her mother took care of Shiela the Elephant during the evenings around the time of the Belfast Blitz in 1941. Copyright Belfast Zoo.

Staff at Belfast Zoo only became aware of Sheila’s second home when she chased a dog through a fence into a neighbour’s garden. The neighbour sought compensation from the Zoo for a broken fence and reported the event to Dick Foster. After months spent with the Austins, Sheila the Elephant returned to life at Belfast Zoo. Dick Foster saw to this by personally padlocking her cage.

In May 1941, the Luftwaffe once again attacked Belfast. Denise visited Belfast Zoo, spending time with Sheila, rubbing the young elephant’s ears to keep her calm. Both would survive the bombs of the Luftwaffe and live long after the end of the Second World War.

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.

An Elephant In The Garden

The tale of Shiela the Elephant and her Keeper captured the public’s imagination. It received mentions on the B.B.C. and other media. Since then, it has inspired theatre shows, an opera, a feature film, and is the inspiration behind Michael Morpurgo’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 90 titles including ‘War Horse’, which became a Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie. He made the decision to reverse the story, setting it during the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany. The Zookeeper’s daughter is Elizabeth and Marlene is the elephant in the “German” tale.

Elephant Angel

In 2012, Scottish Opera produced a 50-minute show called ‘Elephant Angel’. While the staging company was Scottish, the production was a Northern Irish affair. Writer Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast while Scottish Opera’s Composer in Residence, Gareth Williams comes from Richhill, Co. Armagh.

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, Belfast on Tuesday 23rd October 2012. The following Friday, the cast played to the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, Co. Tyrone.

Zoo: The Movie

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 Belfast Zoo, the grounds of the nearby Belfast Castle, and the docks next to H.M.S. 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.

Zoo The Movie

A new movie 'Zoo' filmed in Belfast and Hamilton, Ontario, Canada tells the story of Shiela the Elephant who stayed at the home of her keeper Denise Austin during the Belfast Blitz of 1941.

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

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 Austin the Elephant Angel will be told for many more generations to come.