When Buffalo went wild for Big Frank, the zoo’s first elephant

       By Steve Cichon

Very soon, nearly 12 decades of tradition at The Buffalo Zoo will come to an end when Buffalo Zoo’s two Asian elephants, Jothi and Surapa, move to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

When they’re gone, it will mark the first time since 1900 the zoo has been without an elephant, or at least plans to find an elephant to bring here.

The elephant who’d come to be known as “Big Frank” wasn’t all that big when he came to The Buffalo Zoo as a 7-year-old in 1900.

Buffalo philanthropist Frank Goodyear paid to bring a juvenile elephant from India to Western New York just before the Pan-American Exposition, which was held only a few blocks away from the zoo.

“Frank H. Goodyear has promised to fill a big gap in the city’s collection of animals by providing an elephant, which is in great demand. When the zoo can boast of a real live Indian elephant, a lion, a Bengal tiger and a baby hippopotamus, the joy of Buffalo children will be complete,” reported The Buffalo Courier in anticipation of the elephant’s arrival.

Frank the Elephant was named after his benefactor, and was just over 5 feet tall and 2,000 pounds when he arrived in Buffalo at the age of 7. The elephant spent most of his first several years at the Buffalo Zoo with a shackle around his front leg attached to eight feet of chain.

“He seemed to enjoy the bracing breeze and looked as if he would have enjoyed a longer chain rope,” reported The Courier in 1901. “The reason of Frank’s short allowance of chain was said to be his fondness for attacking fences. By and by the post to which he is tied will be moved to a safer distance and he will then be allowed more exercise room.”

For many years, his only true exercise came when he was put to work. Parks crews attached a giant cement roller to Frank, and he was part of the crew used to repave and flatten the roads around Delaware Park.

As Frank grew larger, and his popularity grew, so, too, did calls for more humane treatment.

It would take 13 years of political wrangling and arguing over the cost of the extravagance of a house “just for an elephant” before Frank would get a new pad – the Elephant House, which remains home to elephants at the zoo to this day.

John Lord O’Brian made his opposition to the planned $35,000 expenditure to build a new home for Frank a major plank in his candidacy for mayor – calling it a needless waste and a “needless expenditure of the people’s money.”

Sculptor Ira Lake created the elephant artwork which graces the front of the Buffalo Zoo’s Elephant House. He’s shown with his work a few months before Big Frank moved in, in 1912.

Among the final straws which helped convince city fathers of the need of a proper facility was the day when Frank gave his leg a quick snap and easily broke apart the cuff and chain which held him in place all day, every day. A new, more solid shackle was made permanent.

It took zookeepers two days to saw through the chain and shackle which kept the now-12,000 pound elephant in place before the new house was built.

Big Frank was much happier in his new, more spacious home.

The Buffalo Times called Frank “the monarch of the $35,000 castle of marble, brick and steel,” and went on to say, “The giant pachyderm fretted in the strange confines for the first few days, but yesterday afternoon was treading the concrete floor of the spacious arena as proudly as if in the native wilds of an Indian jungle.”

He was given pool time, which seemed to be his favorite part of the day. Frank’s morning baths, which were filled with trunk sprays of water and gleeful trumpeting, were among the zoo’s biggest attractions in the first part of the last century.

Frank was also known for fits of rage. His tusks were the largest ever grown in captivity. He broke one off when he violently smashed it against the stone wall of his house.

The violence came with much mistreatment. Children would toss glass bottles into his enclosure. He liked playing with them, but when they’d break, he’d get glass in his paws or his gums. He needed a minor surgical procedure when he swallowed some glass in the 1920s.

He also loved tobacco. Men would throw him cigar butts and he’d gleefully eat them, and zookeepers would give him cigars to eat on special occasions.

Big Frank enjoying a bath in his new, more spacious enclosure in 1913.

The Buffalo Zoo always promoted Big Frank as one of the largest animals in captivity, even after his death. Frank’s obituary ran in newspapers around the world. The 10-feet-tall, six-ton elephant suffered a stroke and died in 1939.