Belfast Zoo has many unusual stories from its history, but this is one of the most curious.
In the zoo archives, zoo staff found photographs of a woman with a baby elephant in a backyard. To mark our 75th birthday in 2009, we launched a search for our 'elephant angel', the mystery woman who looked after this baby elephant during World War II.
In 1941, many of the animals in the zoo were killed because of public safety fears during the Belfast Blitz. The Ministry of Public Security ordered that 33 zoo animals were to be killed in case they escaped from the zoo during the air raids. This included a hyena, six wolves, a puma, a tiger, a black bear, two polar bears and a lynx.
Sheila, a baby elephant, was protected and taken to the home of the unknown 'elephant angel' who looked after Sheila in her back garden. It was believed that she was local to north Belfast, but her identity remained a mystery.
Elephant angel found
With the support of our visitors and the local media, we identified the mystery woman. A surviving relative gave us more information about her. The 'elephant angel' was Denise Weston Austin, pictured along with her mother Irene Beatrice Mary Austin.
Denise was one of the first female zookeepers in Belfast Zoo, earning £15 per week. She was employed at a time when many men were called to war. Her father, Jack Austin, is believed to have been an officer in the cavalry and may have served for a time in India.
According to her cousin, David Ramsey of Belfast, Denise was eccentric and lived in a rather exotic home in north Belfast called Loughview House. Mr. Ramsey also pointed out that Sheila the elephant only lived with Ms. Austin in the evenings. When the head zookeeper, Dick Foster, left work, Denise took Sheila from her enclosure, walked her a short distance to her house at 278 Whitewell Road and walked her back up to the zoo in the morning, sometimes stopping at a shop, the Thrones Stores, on Whitewell Road for stale bread. It was also known in the area that she took Sheila for evening walks. During the night, Sheila slept in the Austin’s' garage.
Mr. Ramsey remembers how the elephant was fondly treated by the Austin family. Sheila was given hay from the family farm, which was of a much better quality than the zoo could provide during an era of rationing.
It seemed zoo staff did not know about Sheila's second home until she chased after a dog into a neighbour's garden, breaking the fence. Many of the neighbours were dismayed at this event and brought it to the attention of head zookeeper, Dick Foster. Sheila remained in the zoo after her evening activity was discovered. Denise's fondness for Sheila continued however as she visited her in the zoo, particularly at night during the air raids, rubbing her ears to keep her calm.
Ms. Austin died in 1997 and Mr. Ramsay said she would be tickled pink with all the attention.
The story goes global
The story of our elephant angel has captured the imagination of people around the world.
The story has been featured on BBC’s The One Show. The story of Denise and Sheila has inspired theatre shows, an opera and several books including Michael Morpurgo’s book ‘An elephant in the garden’ and ‘The Zookeeper of Belfast’ by S. Kirk Walsh.
Our elephant angel story inspired a feature film called 'Zoo', which tells the story of Buster the elephant who is saved by a boy called Tom and his friends. Some of the filming took place in Belfast Zoo and it was released in cinemas in UK and Ireland in 2018.
Watch the trailer for Zoo