A Circus Celebrity

July 16, 2012

Bolivar in early 1900s

In July 1908 the Academy acquired an unusual new specimen for its Mammalogy Collection––a former circus elephant. Bolivar, a male Asian elephant born in Sri Lanka in 1861, had spent most of his young adult life traveling with the Van Amburg Circus and the Adam Forepaugh Circus before being transferred to the Philadelphia Zoo in 1888, where he spent the last 20 years of his life.

A massive animal famous for his incredible size––he weighed more than six metric tons and stood over 10 feet tall at his shoulder––Bolivar was one of Philadelphia’s most well-known animal celebrities in the 19th century. He was the star attraction of the Adam Forepaugh Circus, where he was billed as “The Largest and Heaviest Elephant in the World.”  He was also known, however, for his vicious temper. Though Asian elephants are typically non-aggressive, Bolivar was a lethal exception.  By the time of his arrival at the Philadelphia Zoo he had already killed two of his circus trainers. Even in the less demanding environment of the zoo, Bolivar’s terrible temper persisted, and he spent the remaining years of his life with limited human contact.

The Philadelphia Zoo donated Bolivar’s remains to the Academy in 1908. His skin and skeleton were prepared and then placed on display side-by-side in what is now North American Hall. Bolivar’s skin was taken down in 1919, but his skeleton remained on display until well into the 1930s. His skull was maintained as part of the Academy’s Mammalogy Collection, and you can see it this month as part of Mammal, Reptile, and Amphibian Month on the Academy’s new behind-the-scenes tours!

Behind-the-scenes tours of the Mammalogy and Herpetology Collections take place every Thursday through Monday in July, departing at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. from the Admissions Desk across from Dinosaur Hall. Just $7.50 for museum visitors age 8 and up and $5.00 for members, the behind-the-scenes tours are a wonderful way to view the Academy’s extensive specimen collection of 24,000 mammal and 36,000 reptile and amphibian specimens. You will hear the great stories of their acquisition and collecting and learn why these specimens continue to be so important to natural science research across the country and around the world. 

Bolivar’s is but one of many unique stories of the Academy’s extensive Mammalogy and Herpetology Collections. We look forward to sharing more about his and other stories behind the scenes!

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