I’m not keen on penning articles on animals held in captivity. Their exploitation and treatment in the name of our entertainment has never sat well with this author. There are quite a few tales of elephants in Australian captivity that blew the gob iron that I have refused to entertain. This account, however I felt was worthy of attention as Harold had a short spell of freedom. If you are so inclined you may like to visit the Orangutan Project by clicking on their logo at the conclusion of this blog.
Wirth’s was founded in 1862 and would rise to be Australia’s largest and most celebrated circus surviving until 1963 when the tents flaps finally closed. In 1930 the circus operated on a biannual National tour (each off year they performed in New Zealand) coinciding with key events in the Eastern board state’s major capitals. In Melbourne it was the Melbourne Cup – Australia’s most famous horse race. The Wirth family would present the winning jockey with a gold whip.
In 1938 Wirth’s Circus travelled with a herd of nine elephants, a complete stud of trained horses and sixteen cages of wild animals including: lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, performing dogs and even performing pigs. Favourite of all, however was Harold the almost human orangutan. Children in particular were enamoured with his harmonica playing and they enjoyed his special trick – when handed both a bottle of milk and a bottle of beer, he would always throw the milk away and then drink the beer. Wirth’s Zoo was always a popular attraction of the Circus, opening in the afternoon from four to five with the animals fed on the half hour.
An Orang-utan escaped from Wirth’s circus in Melbourne last Thursday, and for a week there has been neither sign nor sound of him. But he is described as a merry companion, fond of a sandwich and a glass of beer, and the animal trainer (Captain Flyger) fears that he is loth to leave some backyard party! He is only a young one, four years old, is quite harmless except for a habit of wanting to kiss everyone and embrace them and stands less than three feet high, with a weight of 3st. 7lb. He has red hair, and, according to Capt. Flyger, will be your friend for life if you drop formality and address him as “Harold.” Last Thursday the Captain took him to a city cafe, and gave him a bumper meal of creamcakes and sandwiches. A very sleepy and contented Harold was locked in his cage at Wirth’s at the end of the afternoon, but an hour later there was no sign of him. It was found that the padlock had not been properly locked, and the orang-utan had lifted it off and gone for a walk. But they did not worry much about that, for he often plays around by himself. After a couple of days they began to remember that he was worth about £800, and had gained little experience of the outside world since bought as a baby from Borneo. So Wirth’s organised a search party. First they thoroughly combed the Olympia, and then went into the nearby gardens, and looked in all the trees. They calculated that after his tremendous meal of cream-puffs, and with the help of food scraps lying about. Harold would be chuckling somewhere with his fingers metaphorically to his nose. But by now they think he is being fed by some person. He will eat everything a man will, they say, except meat, unless it is in a sandwich. But he will not eat leaves or grass, or anything of that nature, and needs for the day about as much as a man would eat at dinner. Captain Flyger doubts whether the animal could find his way back to the circus over more than 100 yards or so, but scouts are being posted every day, in case he drops in at feeding time in the morning or afternoon. The trainer has a strong suspicion that school children must know something about Harold. So officials telephoned nearby schools and offered a £5 reward for information leading to the arrest of the truant. (The Herald, Melbourne 3 November 1938)
Harold, the orangutan who had been absent without leave from Wirth’s Circus since yesterday week, was found today in a shed in a backyard at Fitzroy. Circus people wonder whether he was taken away by some person who wanted him for a pet and then, becoming frightened of the consequences, turned him loose. He appeared well fed. His trainer, Captain Eric Flyger, is inclined to think that is the only explanation, especially as Harold disappeared from his cage when everyone was at dinner, and was known to be quite harmless. Mrs V Corbett of Napier Fitzroy was startled when she went into her yard early today and found the animal swinging from a beam in the shed. She said the back gate was open, and it must have got in that way. (The Daily News, Perth 4 November 1938)
Although Captain Flyger thought the only explanation was Harold was abducted, there was no definitive proof and there were also other possible scenarios. Perhaps he had had enough of circus life, of being chained and caged for human curiosity and that he was simply seeking freedom to be an orangutan. Hopefully this man of the forest found a tree to climb.
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