She was known as the elephant angel. And now the Belfast woman who cared for a baby elephant in her backyard during the Second World War is the inspiration for a new children’s book.
Denise Austin kept the calf, called Shiela, at her home on the Whitewell Road when Belfast was being bombed in the blitz of 1941.
The elephant had escaped a Ministry of Public Security order to euthanise some of the most dangerous animals if the city was attacked and Ms Austin, one of the first female zoo keepers, adopted her.
Every evening the animal was walked the short distance from her enclosure to Ms Austin’s house in north Belfast. And every morning she was returned to the zoo, sometimes stopping at Thrones Stores for portions of stale bread.
Sheila managed to stay hidden due to the large walls which surrounded Ms Austin’s house, and zoo staff were not aware of her second home until she chased a dog into a neighbours garden, breaking the fence.
After the incident was brought to the attention of the head keeper it was ruled that Sheila had to remain in the zoo. However, Ms Austin continued to visit the elephant, particularly at night during Luftwaffe air raids, when she rubbed her ears to keep her calm.
This heart-warming story, which emerged during Belfast Zoo’s 75th anniversary celebrations last year, has captured the imagination of one of the best known children’s authors.
Michael Morpurgo wrote An Elephant In The Garden after hearing about the “elephant angel” on the radio late one night.
The former Children's Laureate, whose 90 titles include the critically-acclaimed War Horse, which is being made into a Steven Spielberg blockbuster, said: “It’s a wonderful story. I woke up and thought to myself it was a dream so I went immediately and googled ‘Belfast, blitz, elephant’. And not only was it a true story, but there was this article from the Belfast Telegraph and a photograph of the elephant in the garden of this woman. Bizarre.”
His story is set in Germany in 1944 where the director at Dresden Zoo orders dangerous animals to be shot to prevent them running amok if the town is bombed. It follows Elizabeth, a zookeeper's daughter, who bids to save her favourite animal — Marlene the elephant — from falling victim to the Allied bombing during the Second World War.
Morpurgo said his decision to switch locations was to provoke children into thinking about the devastation and horror that was inflicted on the German population during the war.
“Something which is not often thought about, particularly by children, is that we inflicted suffering on other people.
“In a sense I got lucky because I thought what I mustn’t do is repeat myself and I have written quite a lot about this country going through war and it occurred to me that if this happened in Belfast, then maybe it happened elsewhere and I’m afraid the obvious place to research was Dresden. And what did I discover? The order went out to shoot all the animals if the British and American bombers came. So it wasn’t too much of a leap to make this thing happen.
“Also, I thought it would be interesting to see how those moments in history were for the German people when the Russians were coming from the east and so many of them were fleeing towards the west, towards the British.
“What a dreadful time that must have been with the disruption to their lives.
“I seemed to be something worth exploring.”
Sheila survived the war and lived for another two decades, dying of a skin complaint in 1966. Ms Austin died in 1997.
And Belfast Zoo manager Mark Challis said they were proud to be associated with the new book.
“The story of Belfast Zoo's ‘elephant angel’ captured imaginations of people all over the world last year, and we are not surprised that an author has taken inspiration from a story like this.
“The story of Sheila the elephant and her keeper Denise Austin is a fascinating one, and was a big part of our 75th birthday celebrations last year. We wish Michael Morpurgo every success with his new book. We are proud that part of our history has provided inspiration for Elephant In The Garden.”