There’s A Dead Elephant Buried At This Dead Mall

This elephant is not dead. (Mike Matney Photography)

This elephant is not dead. (Mike Matney Photography)

Someday in the far future, the fortunes of suburban Detroit might improve, and someone will redevelop the site of Summit Place Mall in Waterford, Michigan. When that happens, the new owners may excavate the site and wonder what the skeleton of an elephant is doing in suburban Detroit. That will be a very good question.

Only 42 years later, this bit of local history was already mostly forgotten. Mostly. In an article about the mystery of the mall elephant graveyard (warning: photo of elephant corpse), the Detroit Free Press noted that the local historical society periodically gets calls about the elephant, maybe from locals who think it’s an urban legend.

In the summer of 1972, a traveling circus came to town, and one of its performers was Jennie, a 60-year-old elephant with a long career as a performer. She was once in a movie with Elizabeth Taylor, playing a member of a deadly elephant stampede. In real life, she was gentle and obedient.

A traveling circus isn’t a very dignified retirement for a former Hollywood star, and Jennie became ill. She simply stopped eating, and didn’t recover after a local vet visited and gave her antibiotics. She died three days later, of what a vet at the Detroit Zoo suspected was pneumonia. The circus, however, argued with the town over where to bury the animal. They were leasing the elephants, and had to get in touch with their owner. There was no machinery available to lift a 4-ton corpse, even though the circus would have preferred to haul her away rather than turn a mall into an elephant graveyard.

There was, however, machinery available to dig a 9-foot hole, and an older member of the circus elephant herd pushed her body into the pit. A news article at the time (also features elephant corpse) featured the “toothless old circus hand” who had cared for the animals for 14 years and was clearly grieving.

Nobody in town today knows exactly where the elephant was buried: reporters who witnessed the burial have no idea. Neither do mall employees from that era. A scientist offered to find and dig up the skeleton so it could be displayed inside the mall, where it would have been livelier than the current storefronts. Nothing ever came of that plan, and the scientist died in 2008.

A dead metro mall is unlikely grave site for forgotten elephant film star [Detroit Free Press]

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