Most people would find keeping a large Labrador in their back yard a bit of a challenge – but Belfast woman Denise Austin went one better. She kept an elephant in hers.
Austin, otherwise known as the “Elephant Angel” of Belfast, rescued a baby elephant from Belfast Zoo during World War II when the North was being bombed by the Nazis.
Austin walked Sheila to her home on Whitewell Road every evening after work, tucked her up in the yard, and then walked her back to the zoo every morning.
Austin took the elephant home because Ministry of Defense officials were destroying animals amid fears that the animals would escape from the zoo during the bomb strikes.
Apparently, zoo staff were unaware of Sheila’s nighttime escapades – until one day Sheila chased a dog into the neighbor’s garden, and broke a fence. The neighbors complained to the zoo, and from then on Sheila remained at the zoo at night.
But Austin would stay with Sheila nonetheless – visiting her at night during the air raids, and rubbing her ears to keep her calm.
As part of the Belfast Zoo’s 75th anniversary this year, it launched a search for the mystery elephant caretaker’s identity and her family’s whereabouts. The story received a huge amount of media attention, being covered in countries as far afield as China and Australia.
It all goes back to 1941, during World War II, when Belfast was being bombed by the Nazis.
Not only did the city have to worry about its human citizens, but it had to consider the animals in the Belfast Zoo. To prevent the critters from running amok during the chaos of bomb strikes, the Ministry of Defense ordered that some of the animals be killed.
It appeared that the zoo’s resident baby elephant, Sheila, was one of the lucky animals who encountered a happier fate.
A local woman, who has since been revealed as Denise Austin, who was one of the first female keepers at the zoo, took Sheila in, turning her back garden into an elephant safe haven during the violent and scary time.
By day, Sheila stayed at the zoo. By night, she went with her Austin to her home.
"Denise took Sheila from her enclosure, walked her short distance to her house at 278 Whitewell Road, and walked her back up to the zoo in the morning," David Ramsey, Austin's cousin, told the BBC.
It was Ramsey who went to Belfast Zoo to reveal Austin’s identity after hearing about its search. Austin passed away in 1997.