Miss Fancy and Birmingham’s First Zoo

Avondale Park hosted the first zoo in the Birmingham area. From 1911 to 1934, the zoo was home to several animals native to North America, including coyotes, a Timber Wolf, two American Alligators, an American Bison, an eagle, an owl, a bear, and a rattlesnake named Dick. There were a few exotic species, too, including a monkey named Sally, a peacock, a llama, a goat infamous for eating paper, and several colorful doves and pheasants. But by far, the most fabulous and adored of all the zoo’s animals was an Indian Elephant named Miss Fancy.

Miss Fancy came to Avondale in 1913, when she was 41 years old. Stories of how she was acquired vary, with one being that she was won in a poker game. The most likely account is that she was bought from a traveling circus for $2,000 to enhance the zoo’s diversity. One newspaper story says that $500 of her cost was raised from the public, including pennies donated by children.

Julia "May" Griswold and Nell Barron Griswold

Miss Fancy was a gentle soul who patiently entertained thousands of children during the two decades she spent at the Avondale Zoo. During warm weather, and especially on weekends, children would line up for rides on her back under the careful direction of her trainer and caretaker, John Todd. At other times, she entertained visitors by performing tricks at Todd’s instruction, including marching in place and lying down.

At the time, John Todd, who was Miss Fancy’s trainer for nearly all of the 21 years she was in Birmingham, was the only African-American elephant trainer in the United States. Mr. Todd, as he was known, and Miss Fancy were very close, as is typical of elephants and their trainers. Their closeness became clear during World War I, when Mr. Todd was called away for 12 months of service in the army, some of which he spent in France. During this time, Miss Fancy lost 1,100 pounds from the stress of missing her companion. Once, when Mr. Todd was on leave and returned for a visit, Miss Fancy trumpeted excitedly and her spirits lifted. Thereafter, Mr. Todd was asked to visit with Miss Fancy whenever he was on leave.

Mr. Todd attended to Miss Fancy regularly, bathing her, feeding her, nurturing her when she was sick, running her through her tricks, and taking her for two walks a week in the surrounding neighborhoods. Miss Fancy and Mr. Todd were regulars in city parades, including the one preceding the annual football contest at Legion Field between Birmingham-Southern College and Howard College (now Samford University).

Miss Fancy was known for having a huge appetite. During her time in Birmingham, she more than doubled her weight, from 3,760 pounds to 8,560 pounds. One newspaper article states that she ate 150 pounds of hay and three gallons of grain per day, plus whatever treats visitors would throw into her pen. The latter included popcorn, peanuts, apples, and watermelons. She would eat the latter by crushing the melon with her feet, slurping up what she could with her trunk, and picking up the rest with the tip of her trunk. To slake her thirst, she’d drink between 50 and 115 gallons of water each day (probably water from King Spring).

Miss Fancy would make mischief from time to time by breaking free from the iron shackles she was placed in every night. This occurred on at least 12 occasions, and the following day she would be found nearby eating foliage from trees or wandering through yards, munching on plants and peering through house windows at the startled people inside. On a couple of occasions, she damaged property, but never did she attempt to harm anyone.

Miss Fancy was known to enjoy a quart of whiskey as part of a medicinal treatment taken when she was ill. The city would send several bottles of the best moonshine whiskey (“Shelby Corn”) it had confiscated (this was during the Prohibition Era), and the spirits were mixed with other ingredients recommended by a veterinarian. Apparently, Miss Fancy would take her medicine without complaint. Mr. Todd also enjoyed some of the medicinal spirits and was arrested once for public intoxication when he was found asleep on Miss Fancy’s back 11 blocks from the zoo. There is speculation that Mr. Todd was regularly inebriated, but this claim is undocumented and seems doubtful, given the long hours, discipline, and compassion needed to be an elephant’s trainer for two decades.

The beloved Miss Fancy left Birmingham in the midst of the Great Depression, when the city sold off the zoo animals to reduce its annual expenditures. Miss Fancy traveled with a circus for several years and then was bought by the New York Zoo in 1939. She lived out the rest of her days in New York and died at the zoo in 1954, at the age of 82. The foundations for some of Avondale Zoo’s animal enclosures can still be found on the hillside above the amphitheater. It is, at present, not known what became of Mr. Todd.

-R. Scot Duncan