From King’s Gift to Killer Elephant

Sziám kneeling
The begging Sziám. The old Indian bull.

It’s a rare view to see a large animal like an elephant to kneel down in front of a human. If you look close enough at the above image you will also notice a person standing behind the paddock holding out a coin in front of the beast. The title of this photograph reproduced as a popular postcard is “The begging Sziám. The old Indian bull.” It was taken sometime in the 1930s and by then this elephant was an approximately 40-years old veteran in the zoo, known for his signature trick of picking up money from the visitors and exchanging them for food. However, there was a time in Sziám’s youth when no one would give a penny for his life. By 1908 this elephant had killed two of his caretakers. Taking care of him was becoming too dangerous. Both the Budapest Zoo and the city government were ready to have him executed.

This Asian elephant was born in Siam (today’s Thailand) and arrived in Vienna in 1897 as a gift of Chulalongkorn, the Emperor of Siam [1]. The name of this 5-year-old bull was celebrating the donor of this precious diplomatic gift. Sziám’s stay in Schönbrunn was relatively short and he was sent off to the Budapest Zoo only 3 years after his arrival to Europe. The reason for such a fast relocation of the young bull was that he killed his caretaker, either in an act of rage or as an accident. Adolf Lendl, the director of the Budapest Zoo at the time, claimed that Sziám was a particularly well-developed and beautiful specimen and that’s why he was spared from a certain death and transferred to Budapest. Nevertheless, he also noted that Sziám “became a bad natured animal and by the time he grew up everyone was afraid of him” [2].

During the first years of his stay in Budapest, Sziám seemed to have accommodated well to his new environment. He accepted his new caretaker to the extent that his training could begin. That was the time when the young elephant learned about money and its value, thus, showing great abilities in abstract thinking. He was taught to ask for coins and notes, which he then carried to the zookeeper to exchange for delicacies. However, he started to show first signs of frustration towards the keeper. Allegedly the zoo wanted to change the keeper, but he belittled the danger and was drawn into extra income “earned” by the performing elephant. One September day in 1908 when the man was scrubbing the elephant’s skin he must have hurt the animal, which in turn got enraged and attacked the keeper. With his trunk, he grabbed the man by the waist and pushed him against the iron bars of the enclosure, and pierced his chest with his tusk. The caretaker was rushed to the hospital, but there was no chance of saving his life.

After this tragic incident, the Budapest Zoo was hesitant to put Sziám on display. He was separated, but whenever a human approached him he trumpeted angrily and was ready to attack again. As it became difficult to attend to the bull, the zoo seriously considered putting him down. As a last resort, they turned to Carl Hagenbeck, who was not only known for trading animals but also for his skills in training animals. Upon inspection of the animal and the circumstances, Hagenbeck advised killing this powerful and malicious beast before another accident happens. As the young bull reached sexual maturity, he was probably becoming more difficult to handle. It is common for adult male elephants to become periodically (in mating season) aggressive even towards females, especially when in captivity. This condition, commonly known as musth, was one of the reasons for maturing male elephants being discarded to zoos after failing as docile performing animals.

Sziam chained
Sziám chained, Budapest (Source: Uj Idők, 1912)

Another problem arose when the Zoo was undergoing a rebuilding in 1909-1912. Sziám had to be moved to his new enclosure, but no one was eager to lead this risky procedure. This was the period when Sziám’s spirit and physical power were broken. In the early twentieth century, elephants gone “rogue” were commonly kept chained and immobile for long periods of time. The same happened to Sziám in order to force him into his transporting container. The zookeepers were reluctant to set him loose even for such a short walk (a walking distance, 300 feet)  and no one risked to escort the giant to his new home. In this situation, they resorted to employing another elephant to push Sziám’s box.

Bébi was another Asian elephant who was retired to the zoo at the age of forty from the Beketow Circus company. She was very tame and knew a lot of tricks from her previous circus career. Bébi was very cooperative with humans, as noted by Adolf Lendl: “We let Bébi forth. We directed her at the container and we explained to her as you would to a smart elephant with pointing, pushing, and other signs what is her task, and so she started out and pushed the container. (…) Its caretaker and the leader of the work only directed her mainly with verbal instructions, or sometimes with a little bit of spiking. Finally, when she was ready, she was sent aside, but you could tell how proud she was. She received plenty of sweets. Then she walked home. She was happy with her success. She knew she has done a good job” [3]. Bébi’s docility was often contrasted with Sziám’s unpredictable behavior.

Soon after the successful move, Sziám broke his tusk and it was impossible to provide veterinary treatment to the enraged animal. Despite his troubled past, Sziám had a long life in Budapest Zoo and died only in 1945. Several photographs prove that Sziám was back on display and performed his “begging” trick. In fact, the ”trick” was built on visitors’ behavior: people are often tossing a lot of objects into animal enclosures. Coins, rubbish, stones are frequently found in animals’ stomachs, but in the old times even bullets, coal and cigarillos were fed to the animals. However, well-meaning people used to bring bread and salted kiflis (crescent rolls) to feed the animals. Salted kiflis by the hundred were much appreciated by Bébi and Sziám. In the zoo, an elephant was predominantly valued for its docility and ability to entertain. While Bébi could “dance,” Sziám begged for money, other elephants were used for rides.


[1] Ablak a Természetre. Évszázadok Állatkertje Budapesten, Kossuth Kiadó 2001, p. 29

[2] Adolf Lendl, “Sziám, a vad elefánt,” Új Idők, 1912, April 7th, p. 367

[3] Ibid., p. 369



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s