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For more than 30 years, an elephant walked in a Delco parade. Then animal rights activists took notice.

The Springfield Republican Party chairman announced the decision to retire Minnie the elephant this week, saying “Minnie’s participation in the parade was never meant to be divisive."

Minnie, the elephant, walks in the Springfield July 4 parade.
Minnie, the elephant, walks in the Springfield July 4 parade.Read moreCourtesy Springfield Republican Party

Minnie the elephant has taken her last walk through the streets of Springfield, Delaware County.

The Springfield Republican Party chairman announced the decision this week, noting that local GOP officials had sat atop Minnie, a South Asian elephant, in the town’s Independence Day parade for more than three decades, and the creature was beloved by thousands of spectators, particularly children.

But after discussion with scientific experts — and recent outcry from nearly 2,000 animal rights activists — the committee determined “it was time” to retire Minnie, said Michael Puppio.

“Minnie’s participation in the parade was never meant to be divisive," he said in a statement. “It was meant to be an over-sized display of our pride in our township and country, and for many years was viewed in that fashion. We will continue to display our pride in our township and country but will do so without Minnie’s physical presence."

The change comes at a time of much national and local debate over animal rights, especially those of elephants. Circuses and zoos have phased out the use and display of the animals in recent years.

The Philadelphia Zoo closed its elephant exhibit in 2007. After protests and increased state and federal restrictions, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stopped using elephants in shows in 2016, ending an 145-year tradition. A year later, the circus closed, citing a precipitous drop in ticket sales after the elephants were retired.

In light of these national conversations, Stephanie Curson said she was shocked to learn this month that an elephant still walked in a parade not far from her hometown of Upper Darby.

“It’s pretty amazing in 2019 that they’re still riding an elephant down the street in a parade,” said Curson, 37, who now lives in Norristown. “I know people think it’s just a 30-minute walk down the street. But this is just one day of Minnie’s life.”

Minnie, who was born in Thailand and brought to the United States in 1972, is owned by the Commerford Zoo, a Connecticut-based traveling petting zoo, which rents the animals out for weddings, photo and video shoots, and other private and public events, according to the animal advocacy group Nonhuman Rights Project and the zoo’s website. The zoo could not be reached for comment Friday.

Earlier this month, Curson started an online petition called “Ban Use of Wild Animals in Springfield Township, PA," which reads in part:

“The Springfield Republican Party has for many years used a live elephant as advertisement, riding on and parading the poor animal around with bull hooks as cruel incentive to cooperate. This elephant could have been injured or caused injury to someone else.... Wild animals do not belong in parades, circuses, petting zoos or any other exhibits. These displays lead the public to believe it is acceptable to exploit animals for human entertainment. They teach children that animals are here for our use and do not deserve basic rights.”

In a phone call Friday, Curson said starting the petition was “not a political thing." At first, she said, “I didn’t even realize it was the Republican committee” who rode the elephant.

Nearly 1,900 people had signed in support as of early Friday afternoon.

Puppio did not cite the petition as a factor in the committee’s decision. He said the group was not swayed by reactionary arguments or internet-fueled outrage, but rather relied on what he called rational, scientific conversations with professionals.

“While I may not agree with those individuals who say that we were abusing this wonderful animal, I do respect the opinion of those individuals who contacted me personally or online and engaged in a respectful and science-based dialogue,” Puppio said. “I appreciate their candor, passion, and advocacy and take their opinions and positions seriously.”

The committee always worked to ensure Minnie was properly treated, Puppio said, even donating an unspecified amount of money to a “large portion of her yearly care.” There were never any safety concerns, he added.

Curson disagreed. She said reports from PETA and Nonhuman Rights Project indicate Minnie has not been well cared for and had attacked people.

“I know the public might be upset that the elephant isn’t involved anymore,” she said, noting that it’s rare to see such creatures up close. “But I wish they’d educate themselves on what these animals, all exotic animals [in captivity], go through.”

On social media, the initial reaction to Minnie’s parade retirement was mixed. Many lauded the Republican committee for ending the practice. Others encouraged residents to sign a petition advocating for Minnie and two of her fellow elephants to be retired completely from the zoo and placed in a sanctuary, a step Curson supports.

Several people said on Facebook that they were inspired to see that civil discourse was still possible in such a polarized political climate.

“It is so gratifying to hear people with differing opinions discussing their opinions and explaining their reasoning, and coming to a satisfactory conclusion in a sincere and respectful manner, without resorting to rancor or name-calling,” wrote one user. “This gives me some hope for the future.”