Trunk Space: A Story that an Elephant and Tom Fentress Never Forgot

Tom Fentress began working with Estes in 1953, and ended up staying for 36 years. As Vice President of Export/Import Sales, he saw and experienced many interesting things, though maybe none so interesting as that time in 1961 when he arranged to get an elephant from the Port of Norfolk, Virginia, to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Here, in his words, is an account of that “heavy load.” “The elephant was currently situated in makeshift housing on the deck of a freighter coming from India. Apparently, it had been traveling for several weeks. It was a female, and they were anxious to get her off of the ship as soon as they docked. In fact, they needed to get her up to the zoo as soon as possible because she was pregnant, and they were concerned about her physical condition.”

Expecting a delivery

“I was contracted by a man saying that I had been recommended as someone who could help deliver a gift from the children of India to the children of America. When I asked what that gift was, he told me it was an elephant! It was coming up here to be a part of the National Zoo.”

“The ship was due to dock in about a week, so we didn’t have a lot of time. The first thing I had to do was figure out what to haul her in. We had a special trailer called a Convert-A-Van. The sides came off if needed, and it had a ribbed canvas top. If you stripped the trailer of the canvas, the ribbing and the sides, it became a flatbed. I found out that this was what we needed to use because when I spoke with the Port Authority, they said that the Department of Agriculture wanted to be assured that the elephant’s feet would touch neither the ground nor the pier because of the possibility of spreading foot and mouth disease [a serious infectious disease affecting cloven-hoofed animals].”

“They decided to move the elephant in a sling directly onto whatever vehicle we provided. That’s where this special trailer came in—we could get her on the trailer bed and then put the walls up around her.”

A ton of challenges

“Right when it seemed that everything was moving along smoothly, it got a little more complicated. I had spoken to people at the zoo many times as the arrival date grew nearer, and of course, now it had grown into a public relations event through the Department of Commerce (DOC).”

“The DOC folks wanted to show the children of America the elephant gift themselves, so they requested that the truck stop at different schools on the way up to Washington. They also arranged a meeting in Richmond at the ball diamond so that all of the school children could come and see this elephant as it was passing through.”

“Next, we found out that we needed food for the elephant. ‘See if you can’t get hold of some hay or something,’ the gentleman on the other end of the line said. ‘Well, what kind of hay does the elephant eat?’ I asked. He wasn’t exactly sure, but I was directed to someone at Old Dominion University. They spoke Urdu, the language of India, and they could supposedly tell us about Indian elephants. After finding the right person and reviewing things with him, we came up with a certain kind of hay we would have to feed her. You couldn’t feed her anything else, as a matter of fact, or it might be toxic.”

“Now we had to find out where we could get some of this special hay. Believe it or not, we found it in North Carolina.”

“The big day came. We were all waiting ... and waiting. Finally, we got word that the ship was running late and that it wouldn’t be in until about midnight. We knew we had to get the elephant off of the ship immediately, and we were more than a little worried that the dock crew wouldn’t be around at that hour to unload the elephant.”

”The late arrival kept everybody on edge. Talk about waiting for your ship to come in! This was an example of the extreme. A few longshoremen were curious enough to want to see this elephant, so they stuck around to help
unload her.”

“We finally got her onto the truck at about 3:00 in the morning. But just when we thought we were home safe, we discovered that with the elephant being pregnant, we couldn’t leave her out in the open air—it was way too chilly. We had to find a warm place for her. This entailed finding a large, heated warehouse that we could actually drive the trailer into. Miracle worker that I turned out to be, I found somebody at that hour who had an available, large, heated warehouse not too far from the pier.”

“After the elephant was finally comfortably situated in the heated warehouse, we then found out that we had to keep her calm because of her size. So we ended up leaving the elephant’s trainer, called a mahout, right in the truck with her for the rest of the night. The mahout is the character that you see riding on the top of the heads of these elephants with the crooked little stick in his hand. He knew all the elephant’s nuances—what it meant when her snout went up and all that. He had also been in the pen with the elephant on the ship the whole time.”

“I returned to the pier just a couple of hours later, virtually around daybreak. The police had started showing up because I’d asked for an escort out of town with the unit. Well then, here came the mahout. He approached me, swinging his club and saying something that none of us could understand. The professor from Old Dominion who spoke Urdu was supposed to be there, and I was so grateful when he finally showed up. I said, ‘Thank goodness you’re here. This guy is kind of crazy. I don’t know what he’s saying, and I have no idea what he wants.’ After the professor went over to speak to the mahout, he turned to me and said, ‘He wants something to eat. He hasn’t had anything since yesterday!’ Of course! But the only thing we could get to at that point was a hotdog place up the road. So we got him a couple of hotdogs, and that calmed him down.”

On to the next circus act

“At last, the convoy got started. We had a huge painted banner on the side of the trailer saying that this elephant was a gift from the children of India to the children of America. The motorcycles got all fired up, the lights were flashing and the bannered trailer left with the elephant on its way to Richmond.”

“I kind of mopped my brow on the deal at that point, thinking that it was a miracle that we had pulled all of this off somehow. I felt a little heroic, frankly. It was an endless task!”

“The truck finally got to the National Zoo, and everything was apple pie. Later on, I got a letter from both the zoo and some Department of Washington group thanking us for the wonderful job we did.”

“They just happened to mention that they were preparing for a tour later that year where the elephant would visit other school districts in the country to show the children of America this great gift from the children of India. We had done so well on handling her the first time around, they wanted to give us the opportunity to do it again.”

“At that point, I declined, thinking that somebody else should have that amazing privilege!”

Elephants live a long time

Editor’s note: The elephant that Tom helped deliver to the National Zoo is still living there and is one of the oldest zoo elephants in the nation. Her name is Ambika, and she is a healthy 63 years old.


Tom Fentress (1926-2007) joined Estes in April of 1953 after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during WWII (when he received a purple heart for injuries sustained on the island of Iwo Jima) and the Korean War. At Estes, he started out as the Norfolk terminal manager when there were only three terminals in the system—all in Virginia: Alexandria, Norfolk and Richmond (and Alexandria was only a trailer!). Tom was Vice President of Export/Import Sales from 1972 to 1989 when he retired.

We were lucky and privileged to get the elephant story directly from Tom when he joined some retirees in Richmond, VA, in 2005, who were all interviewed in anticipation of our 75th anniversary in 2006.

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