News

POKIN AROUND: There Once was an Elephant Sanctuary in Fordland

A reader recently asked me what happened to the elephants that once found sanctuary on a 136-acre farm in Fordland, just north of Highway 60.
Of course, my response as someone who has lived here only since 2012 was: There was an elephant sanctuary in Fordland?

I'm going to focus more on what the sanctuary was and how it ended.
Only a handful of elephants ever lived at the sanctuary, which has not been in operation for several years.
Murray Hill created the sanctuary in 1992. He was a former vaudevillian, a  comedian who worked with Chatter the Chimp -  as well as a former trainer of circus elephants.

He apparently was what you would call a "character."  He told the News-Leader in 1992:
"The first time I got drunk, I got married. The second time I got drunk, I bought a chimpanzee. I quit drinking and sobered up and ended up with elephants."

In addition, Hill years ago defied a judge's order. Rather than return two elephants to their legal owner, he took off with them.
The book "At Large," written by Gary Ross, tells the story.  The book blurb states: 
"Reveals the story of a retired circus trainer who sold his two elephants, stole them back when he realized they were being mistreated, and - with the help of the circus underground - dodged the FBI for five years."

Hill died at age 84 in June of 2013.
According to his son Adam, Hill had been in poor health for years and prior to his death the farm had stopped housing elephants for several years.
Hill has four children. They are  twin 51-year-old sons Adam, of Venice, Florida, and Allan of El Paso, Texas - and daughters Robin,62, of West Orange, New Jersey; and Nada, 59, of York, Pennsylvania.

Adam tells me that only about five different elephants ever lived at the sanctuary and the most at any one time was two or three. 
He says his father for many years had trained circus elephants.
He retired in 1984 and it was later in life that Hill created the home in Fordland for former circus elephants that were either too old to perform or were so "mean or nasty" that no one wanted them and were likely to have been killed.

Hill said he did not expect the animals to work on the farm and the he wanted them to die with dignity.
His father's real name was Arlan Seidon.

He was born in 1929 and learned to play the accordion at 10. 
According to Adam, his father at one point fronted a band.
His father was known as "Shorty Seidon" because he was barely 5-feet tall.

His name changed after he hired a booking agent.
"The agent wanted a different name so he looked in the New York Phone Exchange. and saw listings for an area called Murray Hill," Adam say.
So Arlan Seidon became Murray Hill.

According to the 1992 story, for 30 years Hill travelled the country with three elephants, including Onyx, who would become "Big Mac" once he took up residence at Dickerson Park Zoo.
At the zoo, Big Mac was given the task of making babies.
Hill had donated the elephant to the zoo in 1980.

But if the elephant sanctuary was not created until 1992, how did Hill donate Onyx to the zoo in 1980?
It's because Hill, his wife and their four children had a family circus: Hill's Great American Circus. It started in Wisconsin.
The animals were kept at the Fordland property, which Hill bought in 1975.

According to a 1977 story in the Sunday News & Leader, the circus had seven elephants, eight chimps, two monkeys, birds, reptiles, three llamas, horses and sheep.  
The story states: "Hill has seen the sun go down on his big top since 1963, when the circus consisted of one small elephant, 31 inches tall, weighing only 187 pounds.  
"Promotion work, television appearances and special performances take the family of six more than 45,000 miles a year across the U.S. and Canada."

Son Adam, a 1985 graduate of Fordland High School, says he and his siblings had special circus acts. 
Nada worked with ponies and did aerial rings; Robin was a trapeze artist; and the twin brothers had a dog show and a "twin" trapezes act.
"We worked every day, seven days a week," he says.

Adam went on to work with elephants at various circuses. He now works as a metal fabricator. 
Brother Allan once worked with elephants at Dickerson Park Zoo and then headed the elephant program at the El Paso (Texas) Zoo.  He is now a teacher.

Adam says his father was a difficult man to work for and, as a result, all four children eventually left the area and had little involvement with the sanctuary.
"He was hoping that we would get involved with it," he tells me. "My dad was the kind of person who did not share. You either worked for him or you were not there.
"It was a difficult relationship."

When his father died in 2013, Adam posted the following on Facebook:
"What a lot of people didn't know (is that) he did a lot of firsts - first to put an elephant ride in malls. (First) to use a chimp as an elephant girl just to name a few.

"In the mid 50's he had a syndicated TV show on WGN called Chatter's World in Chicago.... We may not have seen eye to eye but we all loved him. May u rest in peace."

Daughter Robin tells me she saw little of her father after her mother died in 2001. 
While Hill was hiding from the law with his two stolen elephants - which he believed had been abused - his children in 1986 created the Animal Education, Protection  and Information Foundation. Hill would later,  through the  nonprofit, operate the animal sanctuary.

In addition, the organization sued Dickerson Park Zoo in 1991 for at least $12,500, according to a News-Leader story.
At issue was whether the group was paid its fair share for breeding services rendered by Big Mac at the zoo.
Hill argued that in return for donating the elephant  he was entitled to proceeds from sperm collection from the elephant and other breeding proceeds.

Nada Seidon, 59, vaguely recalls the lawsuit. She tells me she does not know the year when the sanctuary no longer had an elephant.
A news story in the Southeast Missourian mentions that there was one elephant on the property in 2004. 

Nada suggested I talk to Beverly Manegold, of Fordland, who for many years volunteered at the sanctuary. I was unable to reach her.
The land is vacant now. The underground elephant shelter is still there, abandoned.

The Webster County Assessor's Office says Seidon LLC owns a 96-acre parcel along Highway 60, east of Crestview Lane, and another 40 acres to the north.
Nada says the land is for sale and there has been an offer.

(These are the views of Steve Pokin, the News-Leader's columnist. Pokin has been at the paper 51/2 years and over the course of his career has covered just about everything - from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, spokin@gannett.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 N. Boonville, Springfield, MO 65806.
Steve's articles:  http://www.news-leader.com/topic/f471bbef-b023-4ca2-b031-eda137400290/pokin-around/)


More Stories

Trending Stories

Latest News

Video Center