Brad Byrd In-Depth: Erin Gibson talks “Two Elephants” documentary

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A new documentary called “Two Elephants” which features two of Mesker Park Zoo’s iconic elephants named Kay and Bunny. The two animals are forever remembered by generations of kids and adults, but there is much more to this story.

“Two Elephants” will premiere on Friday and Saturday at Old National Public Theatre at the WNIN Public Media Center. Show times for both nights are 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are sold out for the Friday shows. You can purchase tickets here.

Brad Byrd talks with “Two Elephants” producer Erin Gibson, who is also a Journalism instructor at the University of Southern Indiana, about the stories of Kay and Bunny and what went into making the documentary.

Transcript of interview: 

Brad Byrd: “Welcome to In-Depth. On Friday — a documentary about two of Mesker Park Zoo’s most beloved animals will be shared on the big screen. It’s title is simple – “Two Elephants.” It takes a look at the story – I emphasize the words “the story” – of Mesker Zoo’s elephant named “Kay”. Kay was followed by “Bunny”. These two creatures are forever remembered by generations of kids and adults, right here at home. But there is much more to this story. Well, there’s much more to this mystery. I’m joined tonight by Erin Gibson — a journalism instructor at the University of Southern Indiana and now the producer of a film, for the first time, titled ‘Two Elephants” We hear so much about Bunny of course because the generations being, uh, still with us when this amazing creature walked through Mesker Zoo and, eventually, in the elephant sanctuary. But this story really starts with an elephant named Kay and there’s a lot of folks in Evansville who don’t know about Kay. But, this is really a heartbreaking story in many ways.” 

Erin Gibson: “It is. And it started so beautifully. And the Evansville area was so excited. You know, Karl Kae Knecht is a historical figure in Evansville that many people have heard of, but I don’t think we hear enough about. And we wouldn’t have had an elephant or a zoo if it weren’t for him.  Knecht decided that he wanted to get an elephant for the zoo. If we were going to have a real zoo, we needed an elephant. He started a fund drive and advertised that in the Courier – in the pages of the Courier. He drew the front page cartoon and we’ve heard much about him in recent years. James Macleod did a book about him and has been on your show. But, he celebrated her and had children donating pennies and nickels to get this elephant. And when she arrived on Flag Day, June 14, 1929, this city, welcomed her with a parade. And she walked through the streets and was on a float on the way to the zoo. And she was in headlines for decades. And then …”

Brad Byrd: “If only the story would stop there, but it doesn’t.”

Erin Gibson: “It didn’t. In 1954, Bob McGraw, Roger McGraw was, had been a zookeeper … had been her keeper for many years. And in 1954, one morning he was caring for her in her cage, by this time he was the Zoo Director. And we don’t know what really happened, but she fatally injured him and he lived for six days. And he asked that they not destroy her.” 

Brad Byrd: “And there was so much controversy over this, but you know, what did the kids think about this? Because they loved Kay. And they were in a world of innocence.”

Erin Gibson: “Well, newspaper. There’s even a newspaper headline, that “Children vote to keep Kay.” Now, I’m not so sure that there was an actual vote, but I do believe that was the sentiment. And then, the story, as far as all of us know, I wasn’t around. And I’ve always heard this story – and the story just ended with – “and then they traded Kay for Bunny.” And that always bothered me so much over the years.”

Brad Byrd: “I don’t want to give away the entire story here. So, but it’s very touching and… well… it breaks my heart, as I’m sure it did so many people when the mystery about Kay’s last days is fully revealed in this documentary. Former Zoo Director Ron Young in your film said, “No two elephants are alike,” so we bring in Bunny. After what happened, in the situation with the person at the zoo, dying in this situation. Bunny’s a very gentle name. And so many kids and so many adults just instantly fell in love with this animal.”

Erin Gibson: “So much so that whenever there was just a suggestion that she might leave our zoo to retire at an elephant sanctuary, it divided our community. I refer to her as my childhood elephant. When I went to Mesker Park Zoo as a child, I remember walking down that ramp in the Clay Building and looking through the concrete block windows to see if she was indoors or outdoors. I think so many people can relate to that memory. And so, I was a reporter in the mid 90’s. And by the time Bunny was being discussed for her to leave, I was no longer in the business. My husband was, John Gibson, and he covered that parks board meeting where they voted to send her to the animal sanctuary.” 

Brad Byrd: “And my colleague and friend, Shelley Kirk, covered a lot of those stories, the Bunny departure down to Tennessee and the animal sanctuary. That film and videotape … I’m really dating myself here saying ‘film’, but it’s turning into a film that Shelley covered down there. Bunny’s last ten years, can you put that in a cliff note for me?” 

Erin Gibson: “Yes, everyone I talk to no matter what they believe about the whole situation, they think the last ten years were amazing for her. She became acclimated to the elephant herd. She didn’t want to come into the barn at night. She liked to sleep outdoors. She had a wonderful ending at the elephant sanctuary.” 

Brad Byrd: “And that brings us to there’s always been a constant debate even in modern times about animals in zoos. And I love the zoo, I love Mesker Zoo, I love the St. Louis Zoo. I’ve been to several. And about the habitat inside the zoo, did you learn anything about this?” 

Erin Gibson: “I did, and I believe the two stories over the last century can tell us about what elephants need. You know, AZA which is the accrediting organization for many zoos requires an amount of acreage and a certain size of enclosure and also requires that a zoo have three elephants. You can’t be a zoo and be accredited if you only have one. There not meant to live along, and that’s what we’ve learned. And that’s what Kay’s story and Bunny’s story are enforced for us.” 

Brad Byrd: “And you say this a story, very briefly, you’re a journalist in this. You’re not a filmmaker.” 

Erin Gibson: “I definitely am.” 

Brad Byrd: “And basically, we’re going to hear this story through the words of others.” 

Erin Gibson: “Yes. I didn’t not put a narrator. I did not put a script. I pulled all reports from the Evansville Courier, the Evansville Journal, the Evansville Press, and then all the interviews that I did with the people. And I let them tell it. I let them present it.” 

Brad Byrd: “And a lot of the film and video is from WEHT.” 

Erin Gibson: “Yes, WEHT provided a lot of film. I had some from other stations and a lots of headlines from the newspapers, and I let the audience make a decision.” 

Brad Byrd: “Let’s take a look at the board here, Chris, of the show times. Of course, you tell me, Erin, that this Friday night showing, that’s sold out.” 

Erin Gibson: “Yeah, both showings Friday night, the 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., those are sold out that evening. So there are still tickets there for the Saturday showings. Please, if you want to go, you better get them now.” 

Brad Byrd: “And this is at the Old National Public Theatre. That’s in the WNIN.” 

Erin Gibson: “Yes. Beautiful building on the riverfront.” 

Brad Byrd: “Well, this has been a passion of yours and a project I know you’ve spent countless hours on, but congratulations on getting this. This is in a film festival I understand.” 

Erin Gibson: “I just received word today that it’s going to be in the Yes Fest which is up in Columbus, Indiana, so I’m excited about that.” 

Brad Byrd: “A good, great start. Alright, Erin, thanks a lot. Always nice to talk to you and a continued success with ‘Two Elephants.'”

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(This story was originally published May 17, 2018)

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