The story of Mollie the Elephant

Our story starts, as many do, in childhood.  Martin Edmond, poet and writer, was living with his mother, poet Lauris Edmond, and father and teacher Trevor Edmond, in Ohakune in the summer of 1957 when the circus came to town.  Bullen’s circus, famed throughout Australasia for its elephants, included a special member – Mollie – who was famous for being able to do a head-stand on her front legs.  The death of Mollie, from tutu poisoning, is both the source of a childhood memory for Martin, and the beginning of the connection with the University of Auckland, through fellow poet and friend, Prof. Michele Leggott, in the English Department.

Michele Leggott, who had learnt that the skull of Mollie resided in the School of Biological Sciences, attempted to track down the location by visiting the office of Mandy Harper (Director Stage 1 Teaching, SBS), who resides in the McGregor / Morton Historic Room in the Old Biology Building.  In a serendipitous event, a museum case containing two elephant skulls (below image), had been rediscovered a few weeks earlier during renovations of a nearby lecture theatre (BLT-100).  These skulls, originally recorded as being part of the McGregor Museum but “lost”, had now been relocated, and provided the inspiration for Michele’s poetry.

So, how did the skull of Mollie the elephant end up in the McGregor Museum? In yet another coincidence, Derek Challis, technician in the former Zoology Department was travelling to work on the Devonport ferry and reading the Auckland Star.  In this newspaper was an article reporting the death of an elephant in Ohakune.  Knowing that Prof. McGregor was keen to get an Asian elephant skull for the teaching collection Derek grabbed an overnight bag and caught the train to Ohakune. With the assistance of a local farmer who provided a cross-saw, and the local butcher who provided knives, Derek and the local high school biology teacher, Peter Jenkins (who later taught in the Zoology Department), flensed the bulk of the soft tissues from Mollie’s skull while immersed in the local Maungatawhero River.  By now the elephant had been dead a few days and this was a less-than-pleasant task.  Finally, the skull was placed in a box and had to be doused with large quantities of perfume from the local store before the New Zealand Railways would transport the box to Auckland. Joan Robb (a past curator of the museum) tells of this during an interview with SBS staff.  Final cleaning and preparation of the elephant for display in the museum was completed in Auckland and the skull is on display, with an African elephant, in McGregor room 3 (Mac 3).  On the skull there are several knife marks that were made during initial cleaning of Mollie’s skull.

In October 2008, a special celebration of the Mollie story, including both poets and scientists was held in the McGregor Museum (poster image), to bring the story of Mollie out of the closet to reside with the rest of the collection.

Poems associated with Molly include: