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Lost graveyard of zoo animals at Prison Farm may get a memorial

The body of Cocoa the elephant is lifted by a tow truck for burial at the Atlanta Prison Farm in March 1950. (Photo by Marion Johnson/Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center)

By John Ruch

A lost graveyard for zoo animals may be memorialized in perhaps the strangest outcome of the debate over the future of the former Atlanta Prison Farm.

At least two elephants and possibly a gorilla, a rhinoceros and a giraffe are interred on the property on Key Road in DeKalb County — but apparently not on the 85 acres where the Atlanta Police Foundation intends to build the City’s hotly controversial public safety training center. The potential PR nightmare of disturbing an exotic animal’s grave, however, is what stirred quiet investigation by Zoo Atlanta and APF, according to the Atlanta Preservation Center, which is working on historic elements of the site.

“The last thing we need is somebody with a front-loader digging up an elephant skull,” said APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell about the concern of APF and the zoo. “… I think everyone has wanted to stay as far away from this conversation as possible.”

What form a memorial might take remains unclear. In part that’s because most of the information about the burials is unconfirmed and the exact sites unknown, as the practice stopped decades ago.

“We can confirm that there are some Zoo animals buried in that vicinity, but since there have not been animals buried there in at least 50 years, much of the info we have about the site is anecdotal,” said Zoo Atlanta spokesperson Rachel Davis. She said the zoo is talking with APF “on an appropriate way to honor the fact that animals are buried there, but it’s too early in those conversations for us to be able to know exactly what shape that will take.”

However, APF considers its role in the conversation merely to be confirming that no animals are buried directly on the training center site, according to spokesperson Rob Baskin. “How the Zoo or the City memorialize animal burial sites on property beyond that granted to us in the ground lease is a matter for their consideration,” he said.

The APF is separately working to preserve other historic artifacts that are on its site. Mitchell praised the APF’s behind-the-scenes conversations so far, saying the outcome could be “really phenomenal.”

Two well-known animal burials were the elephants Maude, in 1933, and Cocoa, in 1950. Cocoa’s roadside burial — conducted by lifting the body with a tow truck — was captured in photographs preserved in the Atlanta History Center’s archives. Maude’s gravesite was constructed as a “small roadside shrine” with a “marble headstone,” as Jonah McDonald recounted in his local-curiosities book “Secret Atlanta.”

Among the other animals interred in the area, according to local legend, was a 3-year-old gorilla named Willie B. — in honor of Mayor William Hartsfield — who died in 1961. (That Willie B. is not to be confused with another gorilla of the same name who was a major zoo attraction until his death in 2000).

The site of the roadside elephant burials has been identified by locals as on the south side of Key Road, roughly between the ruins of the old Prison Farm buildings and a City water treatment plant. The burial site appears to have fallen into decay even before the Prison Farm’s closure in the 1990s, with headstones and other details lost or stolen, according to McDonald. However, he says, the “concrete frame” of the elephant burial site remains. Joel Slaton, the creator of the folk-art Doll’s Head Trail in nearby Constitution Lakes Park, erected a sign at the spot saying, “Zoo animals down yonder.”

It’s unclear why the Prison Farm was chosen as an animal burial site, but it fits with the long history of the City and DeKalb County dumping anything and anyone unwanted in the area, from prisons to sewage to landfills. That legacy fueled opposition to the training center and support for the concept of including the area in a mega-park called the South River Forest.

The roadside burial of zoo animals is not something done today. As Mitchell notes, changing times have made it hard to imagine having “a deceased giraffe flapping around the back of a flatbed going down Memorial and people are like, ‘Looky there!’” Today, he says, “we would just be in a state of catatonic shock” at such a scene.

Back then, zoos and their close cousins in entertainment, circuses, were still focused on displaying animals as living trophies, with none of such modern rationales as preserving endangered species. Conditions were often poor and the animals were often treated cruelly. Cocoa the elephant had been seized from the wild before ending up in the personal zoo of eccentric tycoon Asa Candler Jr., the scion of the Coca-Cola fortune, who donated her to the Atlanta zoo.

Zoo Atlanta was pushed into a major reform in the 1980s when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered mistreatment of animals. A notable scandal was the fate of an elephant named Twinkles who supposedly had gone to pasture on an Alpharetta farm but instead had been sold to a traveling circus, where she quickly died and was summarily buried in North Carolina. The scandal also included the disposal of animal remains, as it emerged that rabbits were turned into stew and eaten by zoo workers.

“The zoos of decades past and the modern, 21st-century accredited zoos of today are dramatically different in their missions, approaches to animal care and well-being, and general reason for being,” said Davis, the Zoo Atlanta spokesperson. Today, the zoo is known for conservation programs and such pioneering medical treatment and studies as the geriatrics of aging gorillas.

The handling of dead animals is different, too, and addressed by various zoo accrediting bodies. (Zoo Atlanta’s is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.) At Zoo Atlanta, Davis said, all dead animals undergo a necropsy — essentially an autopsy for animals — and are then cremated. Smaller animals are sent to a local veterinary cremation service who “spreads the ashes on a dedicated property associated with their crematory,” Davis said. Larger animals like elephants go to outside veterinary crematoria, where the remains are “handled in a proper and respectful manner,” she said.

Two notable exceptions to the policy are the two Zoo Atlanta gorillas whose ashes are preserved inside statues of themselves. One is the latter-day Willie B., whose statue is at the zoo’s Grant Park campus. The other is Ivan, who died in 2012 and is memorialized at a zoo in Tacoma, Wash.

An abandoned animal graveyard also doesn’t mesh with Zoo Atlanta’s modern approach to historic sites. Last year, the zoo opened Savanna Hall, its rehabilitation of the century-old Grant Park building that long housed the “Battle of Atlanta” Cyclorama painting, which now resides at the History Center. The zoo worked closely with preservation groups and qualified for federal and state historic tax credits.

A site of partly historic, partly legendary graves is a more complex memorial challenge. For that piece of the Prison Farm’s past, time will tell what the future holds.

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1 Comment

  1. Traci Rylands October 5, 2021 1:11 pm

    There’s actually a circus elephant buried on the campus of Oglethorpe University, no memorial for it. You can read about it in my blog:
    https://adventuresincemeteryhopping.com/2014/04/04/the-elephant-under-the-library-and-other-strange-tales/Report

    Reply

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