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Reflecting on Ziggy the elephant’s unfriendly confines

Ziggy was shackled for nearly 30 years to a Brookfield Zoo wall — facing backward in his stall and never seeing the light of day — because he’d been very naughty.

Ziggy the elephant.
Sun-Times file photo

Later, gator . . .

WHOA ... find a CROC rockin’ in the Humboldt Park Lagoon and you’ve hit the motherlode of mega news reads: ANIMAL STORIES!

It’s front-page mojo and sure-fire journalistic juju!

So forgive my hubris, but the gator saga gone gaga hied me back 50 years to my first big animal story, which drew headlines for SIX years!

The tale of Ziggy the elephant.

It took place in 1969 Chicago. It snagged headlines worldwide, a Life magazine story, South Loop billboards, children’s penny parades, donations from soldiers fighting in Vietnam, and sent me into the city room after a short stint in the neighborhood news section.

And when it was over, Ziggy was dead.

Here’s the back story.

Ziggy, a baby elephant once owned by legendary showman Flo Ziegfeld and used as a celebrity party favor, was eventually given to Brookfield Zoo, where he wound up shackled for nearly 30 years to a zoo wall — facing backward in his stall and never seeing the light of day — because he’d been very naughty.

Ziggy’s “crime”?

It was printed on his stall: punishment for attacking his zookeeper during Ziggy’s “musk” period, a testy time for male elephants. (At the time, Ziggy was hailed as the largest elephant in captivity.)

My story about this hapless behemoth began as a happenstance visit, an off-the-clock personal trip to the zoo.

But upon spotting this dusty, old, forgotten fella peeking at his visitors — rump side out, face to the wall — was unnerving.

And, I figured, a helluva feature story.

My boss, now deceased, nixed the story initially, then tried to shove my typewriter keys in another direction.

“No! Absolutely not. Elephants don’t cry! They don’t have feelings,” he said. “Forget it!”

Finally, he issued a green light based on NOT printing any reaction from the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and no mention of elephants having “feelings.”

Ziggy’s story ignited a fundraising firestorm.

So in March 1969, I introduced the city to the country’s largest pachyderm in captivity.

“Ziggy’s six-foot tusks, which once grew so long they crossed each other, now are decayed and broken,” I wrote.

“The once frequent majestic blasts from his huge trunk wail very rarely. ... Ziggy refuses to face his visitors and turns toward the back wall, swaying back and forth, occasionally picking up stray articles of food thrown at him.”

Brookfield Zoo was FLOODED with mail. (No laptops or cellphones back then.)

Peter Crowcroft, the new zoo director, then announced he wanted to let Ziggy go outdoors again, but the zoo would need a new $50,000 facility to let him taste freedom — something they could not afford at the time.

Natch.

In response, people throughout the Chicago area, particularly schoolchildren, began collecting money for the “Ziggy Fund.”

“Free Ziggy” signs popped up.

Schools organized fundraisers. The Bellwood Boys’ Club made a five-foot-tall papier-mâché statue of Ziggy, which they paraded while collecting quarters. Donations arrived from overseas, many from American soldiers stationed in Vietnam.

Ziggy had now become the “everyman” who desired freedom.

Then, in August 1970, the zoo received a major boost from a car dealer pledging to match any money raised to free Ziggy.

In the fall of 1970, the zoo, curious how Ziggy would react to being outdoors, let him see the sun for the first time in nearly 30 years before they built the new facility.

Slim Lewis, Ziggy’s old zookeeper, traveled from Seattle, Washington, to escort the elephant outside.

It was reported Ziggy stood at the doorway for about 30 minutes, then slowly came out and starting eating a bale of hay. After exploring the yard for an hour and a half, the old elephant went back inside.

On Aug. 28, 1971, with more than 1,000 people cheering, Ziggy finally entered new, but incomplete, digs while waiting for his wading pool and indoor stall.

But all good things must come to an end ... and for Ziggy it happened quickly.

Although the 6 1/2 ton bull elephant was freed to walk without shackles when his enclosure was finally completed on Independence Day, July 4, 1973, he fell into his own moat while trying to extend his huge trunk into a no go area.

I’m told a lady was involved; he was reaching for a female Asian elephant.

Hauled out of the moat with mechanical help, Ziggy, estimated to be 58, died months later on October 29, 1975.

My boss bought me a crystal elephant in honor of my Ziggy stories, and I stupidly ignored an invite from a publisher to talk about the possibility of writing a Ziggy book.

And now, 50 years later, the aging Brookfield Zoo (billed as the state’s most popular, ticketed outdoor cultural destination) is begging the state to help fund $260 million in repairs and upgrades.

Ah, Ziggy.

I now have a grandchild to tell your tale, which was my first personal experience with the power of the press.

Sneedlings . . .

Condolences to the family of uber Chicago journalist Jon Van, who was much loved and will be much missed. . . . Cubbie favorite Ryan Dempster brings his “Off the Mound” live show to Park West theater next Saturday to raise funds for the Special Olympics. . . . I spy: Emmy award-winning actor Terry “Lost” O’Quinn spotted recently dining with actor Kurtwood Smith at Two Lights Seafood & Oyster. . . Saturday’s birthdays: Harrison Ford, 77; Cody Bellinger, 24; and Guillermo Ochoa, 33. . . . Sunday’s birthdays: Jane Lynch, 59; Conor McGregor, 31; and Peta Murgatroyd, 33.