Queenie was born in the wild in Thailand in 1952. The 250 pound (113 kg) elephant was brought to the US by Henry Trefflich, an animal importer and pet shop owner. She was just six months old in early 1953 when Bill Green brought his wife and their nine year old daughter Liz on a special train trip to New York. He and Henry had chosen her as a surprise gift for Liz. Although permitted to select any animal from the wide range of more prosaic pets, Liz’s eyes turned to the only elephant in the room.
A camera crew from the Today Show was standing by to film the purchase of the unusual pet. Unfortunately, not even Liz has been able to find any news articles from that time or any records of this footage.
Liz’s brother and a friend had removed the back seat of their 1953 Mercury. While they squeezed Queenie in for the long trip to their home in Orfordville, New Hampshire, Liz and her parents caught a train back again since there was no room in the car with the oversized passenger.
Since she was still practically a baby, Queenie needed a lot of attention in the early days. She was placed in a heated enclosure with a forerunner of the baby monitor picking up every sound she made through speakers in Mr and Mrs Green’s bedroom. At first, she was fed an oatmeal and milk mixture with plenty of added bananas, vitamins and bread.
A year later the family moved to larger premises near Fairlee in rural Vermont where Bill Green opened Bill Green’s Rare Bird and Animal Farm. It was at this new roadside attraction that Queenie first began to do a series of acts with Liz, and her fame grew rapidly. She was featured on the Tonight Show and I’ve Got A Secret.
The Greens had a winter home in Callahan, Florida. Jim and Marj Rusing ran a nearby resort called Ponce de Leon Springs where they performed daily water-skiing shows. They decided to share the joys of water skiing with Queenie. Liz and Queenie appeared in water-skiing as well as other acts during the winters of 1959 and 1960.
The young pachyderm also appeared water-skiing in newspaper and magazine adverts for Mercury Outboard Motors.
She wasn’t the world’s first water-skiing elephant – this honour goes to Sunshine Sally who had retired by the time Queenie made her debut on the water.
As can be imagined, she needed super-sized skis since she could hardly be expected to try on a pair from the local sporting goods store.
There was a bit of a heart-stopping moment in June 1959 when they were at the Bicentennial celebrations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The waves from a passing towboat caused Queenie to fall off her skis. Bill Green, who had been skiing alongside her, held her snorkel above the water until a crane was located which could lift her out of the river. Luckily she was none the worse from her ordeal.
About this time the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted the director of the local Humane Society as saying he had received a number of phone calls protesting at the risk Queenie was being exposed to when she water-skied on the Allegheny River. But Dane, who had been at her side for six years now, disagreed.
“She thoroughly loved skiing,” she said. “She would put her trunk in the water and get a big scoop of water and spray it all over the place! She loved it. Elephants can swim. That particular area, the water wasn’t that deep. And even if she did spill over, they can swim. There was no danger.”
The curator of Mammals at Carnegie Museum agreed with Dane.
“An elephant is provided with a natural snorkel tube,” said he. “Elephants like daily baths. They draw water up in their trunks and squirt themselves. I think water-skiing would be all right if the elephant isn’t afraid of it and likes to do it.”
I’m sure not all elephants would take to water skiing, just as not all humans enjoy knitting, rugby or collecting toilet seat covers.
It appears that a few other elephants have been taught to water-ski since Queenie’s day.
Queenie was also an accomplished harmonica player and her music was a part of her repertoire.
Liz went to college in 1967 and the family sold her to another group who featured performing elephants. It would be 38 years before Liz saw her old friend again.
Her next move was to the Circus Gatti in 1981.
Queenie finally retired in 2003 and was sent to her new home in Georgia: Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta. This is where Liz finally tracked her down in 2005. It was a truly joyous reunion for them both and Liz began visiting her regularly at least once a year.
Queenie began suffering from health problems connected to old age. Pain was affecting her quality of life and the tough choice was made to put her to sleep in 2011 at the grand old age of 59 – one of the oldest Asian elephants in captivity in the US.
Her original owner Liz had been bracing herself for this sad day, as Queenie had been in ill health for some time.
I don’t think animals should be made to perform for our own entertainment but it is clear that Queenie enjoyed her water skiing and was treated with kindness during her adventurous life, halfway across the world from the rivers and forests of her native Thailand.
Since elephants are known to have amazing memories, I wonder if she was able to look back and reflect on her years in the Sunshine State as the world’s only water-skiing elephant.
Further reading / Acknowledgements: