That One Time in Michigan… When an Elephant Stormed Through Lansing

That One Time in Michigan… When an Elephant Stormed Through Lansing

(Scan via Lansing State Journal)

By Karel Vega

August 23, 2023

This wild tale is a true story. But fair warning, ‘Ganders—it’s a sad ending for the animal.

LANSING— We’ve all heard stories before about animal escapes. From cows running loose on a freeway, to even more daring zoo escapes by animals that figured out a way to leave their enclosures.

It’s actually much more common of an occurrence than you might think. Luckily, these events generally end with the animals being safely returned to their home, but one time in Michigan, a loose elephant turned Lansing upside down—and didn’t make it home in the end. Here’s the story of lessons learned from Rajjee, a 16-year-old, 3,000-pound circus elephant.

It was Sept. 26, 1963, and a traveling circus had stopped at the South Logan Shopping Center in Lansing. One of the show’s acts was Rajjee the elephant.

As her handler, Bill Pratt, was wrapping up her show, something startled the pachyderm, and she took off running. She left the outdoor circus ring and the shopping center’s parking lot, and ran through the glass doors of the nearby Arlan’s Department Store—which was filled with evening customers.

“She was in here for 15 minutes just smashing everything in sight,” store manager Meyer Friedman said, in the next day’s coverage in the Lansing State Journal. “The damage is going to be in the thousands. Thank God nobody got hurt.”

Just as Bill Pratt caught up with Rajjee in the store, the burglar alarm went off—sending her back into a frenzy. She charged out into the streets.

Running through residential neighborhoods, the scared Rajjee knocked over fences and parked cars.

After hearing news of an elephant on the loose, Asa Schiedel stepped out of his house to see if he could spot her. Instead, he was trampled by Rajjee, and incurred a fractured pelvis and other serious injuries. Another neighbor was credited with saving Schiedel’s life by chasing the elephant away.

The Crowd Becomes the Problem

Finally, police officers and firefighters caught up to Rajjee, and were trailing close behind her—along with hundreds of curious onlookers who were also keeping pace. To keep the rambunctious crowd safe, officials had to act, and fast.

They considered using fog to slow the animal, but the tactic would probably have been useless due to Rajjee’s speed. They considered tranquilizing her, but weren’t sure if any darts could successfully pierce her hide.

“We drove right alongside her for two or three blocks but we couldn’t decide what to do,” Det. Lt. Mack Seegraves said.

Ultimately, Seegraves made the difficult choice to fire his rifle at the elephant, whose path was stirring up chaos in the crowds behind her. Eight shots brought her to one knee. An additional three dozen put her out of her misery.

Police then got to work securing the scene and holding back the crowd, which had begun screaming accusations of murder at the officers.

With his face in his hands, Rajjee’s weeping handler Bill Pratt placed the blame squarely on the crowd. “Damn these people,” he was quoted as shouting. “They wouldn’t leave her alone.”

That One Time in Michigan... When an Elephant Stormed Through Lansing

Rajjee’s handler, Bill Pratt, is seen sobbing following the elephant’s death. (Life Magazine, 1963)

The Aftermath

Rajjee’s death is now a distant memory for most Lansing residents. But for some, she’ll never be forgotten.

In 2011, the Lansing State Journal ran an article recalling the story. After reading the retrospective, local John Fouts wrote in to share his memory of that night in 1963, and the lessons he learned.

Then age 16, Fouts recalled how he and a group of teens were watching a baseball game at a local high school when they saw Rajjee on a nearby street. They jumped into the fray to chase her.

“We scared the elephant enough that (she) ran between houses into backyards, knocking over porches and anything else in (her) way,” Fouts wrote. “The police and the trainer were there begging us to not rile the elephant, but we continued on.”

“Only after the elephant was killed did I realize what we had done,” he wrote.

In the aftermath, Fouts said, “[two local high schools] joined in a year-long campaign of fundraisers to pay the trainer for his loss, and I, to this day, regret my actions on that night.”

Shows like the one Rajjee was in are largely banned throughout the US today—due in no small part to stories like hers.

That’s this week’s story about That One Time in Michigan. Get these weekly historic glimpses of the Mitten State sent directly to your inbox on Mondays by signing up for our newsletter here. Know a story we should explore? Tell us here!

That One Time in Michigan... When an Elephant Stormed Through Lansing

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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