Former circus trainer creates home for unwanted elephants

Sunday, November 14, 2004

FORDLAND, Mo. -- Murray Hill loves elephants. So much so, that he once left his family and hid out for five years with two elephants that he believed were being abused.

Hill still watches over elephants, but these days he does it on his southwest Missouri farm, which serves as a sanctuary for elephants that have outlived their usefulness to circuses and zoos because of age or behavioral problems.

"The first time I got drunk, I got married," he said. "The second time I got drunk, I bought a chimpanzee. I quit drinking and sobered up and ended up with elephants."

Hill was working the cocktail lounge circuit as a comedian with a chimpanzee sidekick when he started importing primates in 1959. Four years later, he imported his first elephant.

"Nobody would buy him because he had to be fed every two hours by bottle," Hill said. "I knew nothing about elephants."

Hill got lucky in 1965 when he imported an Asian elephant named Onyx from Bangkok, Thailand. He teamed it with two other calves to create a circus elephant act known as "Mitie-Mites."

Onyx later went to Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield in September 1980.

Meanwhile, Hill decided it was time to settle down on his 156 acres near Fordland, about 20 miles east of Springfield.

Hill struck a deal to sell his other two elephants -- Tory and Dutchess. He repossessed the animals, however, after the man fell behind in his payments.

A judge eventually ordered the elephants returned. Hill said he refused because the elephants appeared to have been physically abused.

He and his "girls" -- one 6-foot-5, the other about 7-foot -- were on the run from May 1984 until October 1989.

It ended in Texas when Hill says he was turned in. Hill was ordered to serve 100 hours of community service. The animals were returned to the man who had bought them from Hill.

While he was gone, one of his daughters formed the Animal, Education, Protection and Information Foundation for elephant rescues.

Hill took over the not-for-profit foundation when he returned and created a sanctuary out of the green pastures, forests and ponds on his farm. He also built a heated, fortress-like pen underground for elephants.

Hill's elephants never have to worry about performing or entertaining the public.

It's one of four recognized sanctuaries in the United States. The others are in Arkansas, California and Tennessee.

"If we fold up, the bad elephants, the big bulls eventually will be destroyed," Hill said.

The sanctuaries also provide researchers a chance to learn more about elephants.

"We don't care what the problem is. Don't care how big they are, tough they are," Hill said. "This facility will hold them, and it's safe."

Hill's soft heart and feisty attitude makes him a good companion for troubled animals, friends say.

Betty, a 9-foot elephant that weighs about 10,000 pounds, is now the sole tenant at Hill's sanctuary. She came to the sanctuary in 1999 after attacking a circus groom in Canada, who later died.

Hill and his volunteer staff had gone relatively unnoticed until Nov. 1, when someone cut the electric fence and forced Betty out of her yard. The elephant was found the next day without incident.

People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals asked authorities to pursue charges against Hill for allegedly not providing adequate control of Betty.

The Webster County Sheriff's Department investigated but found nothing to indicate any wrongdoing by Hill.

Dennis Schmitt, veterinarian and researcher of elephant artificial insemination at Southwest Missouri State, says Hill is a compassionate caretaker.

"Even though elephants are social, some elephants are not as friendly to other elephants or people," he says. "So you need some facilities for them to be able to live out their lives."

Brian Hill, spokesman for Houston Zoo and no relation to Murray Hill, says the zoo has received several e-mails since female elephant "Shanti" arrived in 2000 from the sanctuary.

"He was very excited to hear that she had given birth to a healthy calf," the spokesman says.

Hill says his greatest struggle now is finding donors to support the $1,100 monthly expenses. He also hopes that one day his sanctuary will be expanded.

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