Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Story of how Belfast Zoo's baby elephant was kept in backyard of home during Second World War Blitz to be made into film

Baby elephant Sheila with Denise Austin at her home on Belfast's Whitewell Road
Baby elephant Sheila with Denise Austin at her home on Belfast's Whitewell Road

The true story of a Northern Ireland woman who kept a baby elephant in her backyard during the Second World War is going to be made in to a £5m film.

Denise Weston Austin – better known as the "elephant angel" – rescued the calf from Belfast Zoo and kept it at her home on the Whitewell Road in the north of the city when we were being bombed by the Luftwaffe in the 1941 blitz.

Ms Austin, one of the first female keepers at the zoo, saved young elephant Shiela by sneaking her out of the zoo every night and walking her the short distance to her home.

Shiela managed to stay hidden due to the large walls which surrounded the house, and then every morning she was returned to the zoo.

Ms Austin's decision to take the animal came after officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary shot dead 23 animals at Belfast Zoo.

They were acting under orders from the British Ministry of Public Security, which feared that the creatures would escape during bombing and wreak havoc.

Ms Austin's was labelled the "elephant angel" as her identity was unknown until a public appeal for information was launched a few years ago.

Belfast Zoo had photos of a family with the elephant, but had not been able to find out who they were.

The forthcoming film based on the incident, called Zoo, has received development funding from the Irish Film Board, Northern Ireland Screen and the British Film Institute.

It will be directed by Colin McIvor, who made Cup Cake in 2010, and he will also write the script. Katy Jackson, a producer on Zoo, said the movie idea came after a story about Belfast Zoo's request for information on the elephant angel appeared in this newspaper.

The production was developed after the Belfast Telegraph appealed for the woman to come forward. "People came forward who remembered the story and they discovered who she was," said Ms Jackson.

"Austin died in the 1990s and the elephant survived in to the 1960s.

"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."

In the film, Ms Austin is portrayed as an older, more reclusive character than she was.

The producer said: "Her family had a farm locally, so she was able to get hay that was of a better quality than they could get in the zoo.

"The reason she was caught was that a dog spooked the elephant and it ran through all the local gardens.

"People complained to the zoo and the elephant then went back there."

BACKGROUND

Denise Austin decided to take home a young elephant called Sheila after RUC officers killed six wolves, two polar bears, a hyena, tiger, puma and black bear, among other animals. Alyn Cairns, the elephant curator at Belfast Zoo, said there had been black and white photographs of Denise, her family and the elephant at the zoo's offices since he joined 26 years ago. He also said that the identification of Ms Austin four years ago had created massive public interest in the story.

 Baby elephant kept in Belfast backyard is inspiration for book

Belfast Telegraph's role in tale of keeper and her unusual house guest

She was dubbed the "elephant angel" by Belfast Zoo.

And that's because Denise Austin cared for a calf called Shiela in the back garden of her Belfast home at the height of the Second World War.

But her identity was a mystery until 2009 when the Belfast Telegraph helped the zoo launch a public appeal for information to mark its 75th anniversary. Then, the following year, we broke the story of how the heart-warming tale had been the inspiration behind a new children's book.

Michael Morpurgo, the former Children's Laureate, wrote An Elephant In The Garden after hearing about the elephant angel on the radio late one night. "It's a wonderful story," said Mr Morpurgo, whose 90 titles include the critically-acclaimed War Horse that was turned into a Steven Spielberg blockbuster.

"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 by the Allies.

It follows Elizabeth, a zoo keeper's daughter, who bids to save her favourite animal – Marlene the elephant – from falling victim to the order.

He 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.

Shiela survived the war and lived for another two decades, dying of a skin complaint in 1966. Ms Austin, her caring keeper, died in 1997.

 

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