Wellington Zoo's First Elephant Nellikutha 1926-1944

I still have to do the write up on this elephant. Below is the timeline of articles I've so far managed to locate on Nellikutha (also spelt Nellikuthra). Nellikutha was obtained in the wild in 1926, only weeks before she was shipped to New Zealand. She spent a year being trained by her mahout Sheik Arju Hia, and was named by Wellington Zoo at a naming ceremony. She spent most of her life carrying visitors around Wellington Zoo without any incidents to speak of where her behaviour was concerned. It should be noted that Wellington Zoo spell her name as 'Nellikuthra', however the articles throughout the newspapers of the time refer to her as 'Nellikutha'.'Nellie as she was so fondly referred to by died of an intestinal ulcers on 15 April 1944





 The Zoo population is to be considerably increased during the next few weeks several new animals are now on their way to Wellington.

Three spider monkeys were listed as passengers by the Ulimaroa from Sydney,' and two pairs of lemurs are expected via Auckland in a day or two.

The American bison, presented by the Canadian Government, are also expected fairly soon.

For years Wellington has talked, of an elephant, but elephants are costly luxuries in first cost, housing, and feeding, and so the elephant came to nothing. A few months ago, however, the Madras Government offered to present a young elephant, a female, to Wellington, the council accepted, and now she is on her way.

 A new tigress, to replace the animal that died a few months ago, is believed to be somewhere on the water, and should step ashore, per ship's crane, about the same time as the elephant.

So far not very much has been done in regard, to the better housing of the larger animals, and probably mother month's excavating will be required before a start can be made with the actual construction of the big pits for the bears, now caged in anything but roomy pens just inside the main gates of the Zoo. These bear pits will, in all, probability, be the beginning of a better and. brighter Zoo, for, if they turn out in fact as they promise on paper, the pens and enclosures of other large animals will suffer sadly by comparison and a general improvement must follow.

- Evening Post 15 December 1926





Two important additions to the Wellington Zoo will arrive by the Suffolk from the East on Friday next, a young female elephant and a tigress.

The elephant is a gift from the Madras Government, a healthy animal when shipped and well used to handling.

The tigress was purchased at Singapore by the Wellington City Council to provide a mate for the tiger already at the Zoo.

The elephant will be temporarily accommodated in the yard at the front of the lion’s cages.

-          Evening Post 8 January 1927


Ever since there has been a zoo in Wellington, which is since 1906, when Messrs. Bostock and Wombwell presented a young lion to the city, hopes have been entertained particularly by Zoological Society, that some day Wellington youngsters would, have an elephant-to ride upon. Several times the elephant almost came off, but when elephants were offering finance was short, and, latterly, the council decided, that the elephant could wait a while, or longer.

The Zoological Society, however, had made up its mind, and was fortunate enough to interest the Madras Government. Still, some of the councillors were against elephants at Newtown Zoo, but the Madras Government made a generous offer to present a young elephant, and that offer was accepted.

 On 5th December word was received that a female elephant had been booked as a passenger for "Wellington by the Sussex, and this morning the Sussex arrived. Lily, or Harti, or Nellakuta, according to different fancies on board, was a passenger and, moreover a perfect lady.  Six years of age quiet almost to silence, and quite willing to be petted and punched by any one.

Lily, however, had been in the wars, and still bears scars on her forehead and neck and shoulders. The trouble was of her, own making, for when she was boxed up in an Indian railway truck for transportation to the coast she objected, and proceeded to smash up things with real enthusiasm and considerable success. Considering that she was taken wild[1] in an elephant drive only a few weeks previously, that was not surprising. Having worked off steam and temper, Lily apparently settled down to what could not be avoided, and came out, on deck, without further, fuss.


She did object to the tucker offered her, but authorities here—there were quite a few of them, to meet her, apart from Mr. J. Langridge, curator of the Zoo, Captain Lindo, an old hand with animals, and those on board—said that that merely showed her good taste, for the hay was poor stuff, and was promptly sent away to the destructor. By refusing in turn what was offered her, Lily, signified her particular fancy, boiled rice with any amount of sugar in. it, and between Calcutta and Wellington she accounted for something .like 200 pounds of sugar. Her taste; so said her mahout, Sheik Arju Hia, through an interpreter, will straighten out ashore, to sweet hay, fruit, and so on.


 Sheik Arju Hia speaks no English whatever, but he speaks elephant fluently, is keen on photography, of himself and Lily, and is plainly very fond of, his charge. Even so, he was by no means sure this morning whether he would stay ashore with her until the Sussex calls again at Wellington, and entered into, a tremendous bargaining as to terms. Four pounds a week, suitable clothing for this Arctic (by comparison) climate,  food and lodging, were his terms, but, being a really good bargainer he would not listen. To them when they were agreed to. At the end of an hour no one knew what was wanted or what was offered and the debate closed, as Stephen Leacock says, with expressions of mutual goodwill. Whether he stays ashore or sails has still to be settled. 


 It was a simple matter to get Lily off the ship she shambled across the deck, close hobbled, hopped her front feet into a heavy horse box, and was hoisted over the side to the wharf.

The idea was to change her over, to a float and roll her away behind a lorry to the Zoo.  She tried the float and felt the springs give. That was quite sufficient, she refused point blank to be coaxed or pushed or prodded, so her hobbles were removed and she went afoot.


Curiously enough there were not so very many youngsters at the wharf, but those who wore were keen enough. Sheik Arju Hia and his interpreters explained that Lily was not yet, trained [2]to children, and warned the youngsters back, but Lily moved to them and did no damage, except to peanuts. Tomorrow there will be any number of youngsters to see her at the Zoo, but those who go to Newtown with the idea of having first rides will be disappointed.

Some time must be allowed her to settle down, and in any case a howdah most first, be made to ride in. For the time being she will be given the camel house, the camel having departed from all zoos some time since, but better quarters will have to be provided before long. Her keep will probably run into about 25s per week.

- Evening Post January 15 1927



Yesterday was a very big day at the Zoo, for a record attendance gathered, probably to ride on the elephant.

 Actually there were no elephant rides for anyone, but no one minded that— especially the elephant. Unless the animal is provided with a cast iron digestion, there  will be no rides this week either, for every second person of the several thousand who visited the Zoo yesterday apparently took along a bag of buns or a couple of bananas, or fruits, and eatables greatly assorted.

Lily, tethered by a long chain in the old camel enclosure, moved round and round and accepted everything. For safety's sake youngsters who ventured within the circle of roach were ordered back a yard or two —how many times during the afternoon that had to be done no man knows—but the elephant throughout the afternoon was friendly towards everyone.

Saturday's long wrangling and bargaining as to the terms upon which the Indian keeper might come ashore, for a month or two to complete the education of the elephant went against the Indian eventually, and Captain Lindo, who has captured and trained great cats and little cats, as well as elephants, has undertaken to break Lily in to the business ahead.

She is a very quiet animal, he says, but still one never knew when an elephant was going to enter a protest when training commenced. Auckland has had an. elephant for some years, and still the animal (Jamuna) is as big an attraction as ever particularly at bath time, for she wades and rolls and sloshes about in a concrete tank in a way that delights everyone. At the present time there is no suitable pond at the Zoo for Lily's enjoyment, but this will no doubt come a little later.

The tigress was not on view yesterday; she was lying low in the boxed cage in which she was brought from India. To-day she was transferred to her permanent cage next to Prince, but still not much was seen of her, for she prefers the den for the time being. Having exhausted the present possibilities of the elephant, yesterday's big crowd did the Zoo rounds, with special reference to the lions at feeding time.

Before the cages was a record crowd, filling the terraces to the last foot of space and overflowing to the slope above. The sea lions also had company for tea, clambering over the hillside, and each other, for a better view.

It was at the monkey cages that the crowd lasted longest, however, for there was something really funny, except to one small person. That was a little girl who had been so unwise as to get inside the barrier for a dropped peanut.

An enterprising monkey reached out and gathered in a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, and then for an hour or so kept the crowd in shrieks of laughter by looking through them. He did not put them on—they were too big in any case—but, held them, wrong way round, and peered through first one lens and then the other. It was a very bright, show, but the little girl did not enjoy it. From that experience, however, she will profit by the lesson: Walk not into the lion s cage, nor within reach of the monkey's paw.

The Canadian bison did not attract a great deal of attention, for they are still inclined to be sulky and spent the day at the back of their enclosure ruminating upon the apparent stupidity  so many hundreds of people who came and stared at them.

There is no doubt that Wellington Zoo has the animals, but with the exception of some of the lesser specimens and also' the birds, they are not yet well housed; they may be quite comfortable, but they do not give one that impression.

Many of the enclosures are dingy, the deer and cattle pens are certainly too small to give grass a chance to grow, and generally there are indications that the Zoo is run on short finance. There are many who agree with those city councillors who say that the way to a brighter and more enjoyable Zoo lies through Sunday charges.

- Evening Post 17 January 1927


The Mayor and Mayoress and a good number of the councillors, members of the Wellington Zoological Society and their friends were more or less formally introduced to the elephant at the Zoo this morning, Mrs. T. Fathers, the wife of the president of the Zoological Society, first naming the animal "Nelli-kutha," for without a name an introduction is a vain and empty ceremony Mrs. Fathers also bestowed the pet name "Kutha" (pronounced "Koota") for use by those who are apt to be tripped by four syllables. Mr. Fathers referred to the Zoo as he had first known it, twenty years ago and congratulated all concerned in its management on its remarkable growth since that time.

 Several times the society had endeavoured to obtain an elephant, but transport charges had always been a big difficulty.

The Union Steam Ship Company had, however been very generous to the city in the matter of the transport of Nellikutha bringing her out from India for £10.


 Mr. J. Castle, secretary of the society, also referred to the development of the Zoo, which, in spite of occasional criticism, housed to-day a really good collection of animals, of which citizens should feel rightly proud, and included a losery which it would be difficult to improve upon. The elephant, he had no doubt whatever, would prove a great attraction at the Zoo, particularly when she had been trained to carry children round the grounds.

The Zoological Society, continued Mr. Castle, was formed in August, 1910, and the first purchases were a pair of kiwis, then more birds, a kangaroo, a leopard, which was still alive and flourishing, after 17 years of zoo life, a brown bear, etc., etc., to the number of between thirty and forty gifts to the Zoo of birds or animals. He mentioned the society's previous efforts to procure an elephant for Wellington, and expressed their thanks to Sir James Allen, for it was largely through his instrumentality that the animal had been offered to Wellington by the Madras Government. On behalf of the society he handed to the Mayor a cheque for £25 to assist in defraying the cost of bringing the elephant and the new tigress out from India.

The Mayor, in thanking the society for its very willing co-operation with the council in zoo matters and the Madras Government for its generosity in presenting the elephant to Wellington, said that the latest additions would undoubtedly bring about a greater interest among citizens in their zoo. The Zoological Society had been .of great assistance to the council, not alone by its energy and generosity in introducing new animals, but by the manner in which it had been able, on many occasions, to advise the council.


Certain of the councillors had expressed themselves as against building up the Zoo any further, continued Mr. Norwood, but he knew that in that they were prompted by the feeling that it was not humane to enclose wild animals in unnatural surroundings; the society and the curator, Mr. J. Langridge, were to be relied upon to see that the best possible conditions were maintained.

 When the council as a whole felt that that was so, and if certain legislative amendments could be obtained, there was no reason why Wellington should not build up one of the finest zoological collections in the Southern Hemisphere. Councillor Thompson, chairman of the Reserves Committee, was anxious to do the very best with the collection and upon one point he and his committee were firm, that it was no use having half a zoo, it had to be a good zoo or none at all.

Councillor Thompson referred to the suggestions made that the Zoo should be removed altogether from Newtown and relocated near Wilton Bush, but in his opinion that would be an unwise policy, firstly, because the shift would cost something over £30,000, and, secondly, because there would not, in his opinion, be so many visitors to a zoo in the suggested location. Personally, he was not in favour of Sunday charges for the people of Wellington paid for the upkeep of the Zoo, and probably if a Sunday charge was made many who now took their children alone would not do so.

Councillor Thompson also referred to the enthusiasm and the good business ability of Mr. Langridge, under whose care the animals and birds were doing exceedingly well.

-          Evening Post 21 January 1927



"A Lover of Animals" writes, as a visitor to Wellington, criticising the conditions at the Zoo. The writer states that she saw the elephant chained in the open exposed to a gale and enveloped in the smoke of a rubbish fire kindled nearby.

The cages for animals (it is contended) are too small, and the site is unsuitable, as it is too exposed. The conditions compare unfavourably with those, of the Auckland Zoo.

-          Evening Post 16 April 1927


The elephant has grown eight inches taller since she came, and a ton or so heavier, and has been taught quite a number of tricks. She has to be chained up when the keeper is not in attendance, otherwise she will lean severely on the door, in the endeavour, to take a moonlight walk, and the door will not stand that. Climbing up on a tub, which barely holds all four feet, and there waltzing gravely round is one of her tricks. There is nothing she likes better than her daily exercise, and it is something of a shock to see the huge bulk looming suddenly up behind one. The big feet are as silent as balloon tires.

-          Evening Post 3 October 1928

"The other day my little brother and I were taken to the Zoo. There we saw lots of animals, and birds. First we had a peep at the birds, then the lions, and the fishes, and then we went to see the sea lions being fed, and it was good to see them diving for their food.  We saw the brown bear and the white bear, but he did not look as well as he used to. Next we saw the elephant, and it has grown big now. Afterwards we saw the monkeys, and what funny fellows, they are to look at. "That was all we saw that day, and I do like going to the Zoo very much.

- Evening Post 21 September 1929


Headliner “Zoo Finances Estimates for the year “

…..£50 for an elephant pond. At present the elephant gets along as best as ...she can under the hose, not necessarily only on Saturday nights. In the Auckland Zoo the afternoon bathe is one of the "high lights" of the whole place, but it would not appear that £50 will be enough for more than a very modest elephant bath. In any case a lady elephant may not wish to be stared at while she washes, oven though the daily spectacle may be good for Zoo finance. …

- Evening Post 17 April 1930


A visit to the Zoo finds many foolish people who should stay away from the wild animals. Last Saturday at the Wellington Zoo irresponsibles were throwing small articles at the elephant, when it was being given a bath. Just how dangerous a proceeding it was few realised and the keeper had to keep his eyes open in all directions in case of trouble arising.

 - The Otautau and Wallace County Chronicle 27 January 1931


The other day I took my small brother to the Zoo. We saw the elephant, Nellikutha, having her bath. Really, Fairie, it was as good as any comedy at a theatre to watch her try to evade the good-humoured keeper, who was trying his hardest to scrub her down with a broom. She squirted water at him with her trunk, splashed him with her legs, and, oh, lots of other things!

 "MAM'SELLE' JOIE." (14) Newtown.

- Evening Post 13 February 1932 ‘Fairie Ring Column’


“ Just as ridiculous is the statement that the elephant is kept tied up for twenty-four hours a day except when giving children, rides on rare occasions. The elephant is given three to four hours exercise, each day, either with the children, log-hauling, or just doing the grounds. On every day when the weather is reasonable a bath is added.”

-          Evening Post 14 July 1932
-          Statement of G.H Burn in his challenge to the critics of the conditions at Newtown Park Zoo
-          Headliner “Zoo Conditions. Challenge to critics. No Cruelty to animals. “Too Much Wild Talk”


“Day’s Fun”
"One Saturday we took the money out of our money-boxes and took Daddy to the Zoo. When the ducks saw us coming through the gate, they all swam over the pond. We gave the ducks some bread, and a little duck got it once, and a great big swan bit its tail. Then we moved on till we came to the elephant house. We fed Nellikutha, and then went to see the lions. The donkey with the cart which had meat in it was there. The keeper gave the little cubs a fair sized bone each, and the mother lion a big bone. Then he gave the tiger one great big bit, and the tiger put out his paws and snatched it from the keeper's hands.

"DANCING DOLL" (8). Hataitai.

- Evening Post 23 July 1932



Nellikutha, the elephant, has grown astonishingly since she arrived a few years ago, and is apparently quite satisfied with regular meals and nothing much to do except take baths and exercise and carry loads of children round, the remarkably short threepenny walk. A merry-go-round ride is short in duration but fair in distance the Zoo elephant ride is short both ways, though maybe long enough for anxious mothers, who invariably are far more frightened of an elephant yards away than the children on its back. Nellie is, happily, a perfect lady and has an unspoiled record of good behaviour.

-          Evening Post 23 December 1932



We went to Newtown Park for our Sunday school picnic. In the afternoon we went to the Zoo, and I had a ride on the elephant. I was sitting at the end of a seat, and I kept on touching the elephant's back. It was so hard and rough, I couldn't move it. I saw two big penguins and two little ones. The two little ones could just balance themselves. They were a greyish colour, and the big ones were black and white. The black bear we saw stood on his back legs and begged. He had to lean against the wall, but the white one could not get up so far.

 "GLEN FAIRY" (10). Karori. '


Image Caption

 “At home to visitors – Nellikutha the popular elephant at the Wellington Zoological Gardens at Newtown, was yesterday the centre of attraction to a large number of children. Her attendant put Nellikutha through a number of revolutions and tricks, much to the delight of the youngsters, and some older people two. The illustrations show delighted children watching the elephant perform, while at the top left Nellikutha herself is seen”

- Evening Post 4 January 1934


A Big Baby Now.

Nellikutha, the elephant at the Zoo that was affectionately called a baby not so long ago, has doubled her weight since she came, and now weighs about four tons. She is as sweet-natured as formerly, but when she sways on her feet as seductively as any child impersonator on the stage, the two-inch planks of her platform bend ominously, though they are supported at every three feet, and a wood blocking floor is what seems to be required. Nellikutha's tusks are not very thick yet, just baby teeth, less than two inches through. She has had the, misfortune to break one of them. How it happened is not known, but it is thought that she must have been lying down asleep when an earthquake was felt one night, and that in getting up in a hurry, the tusk caught in her chain. It was found broken in the morning. Earthquakes in the daytime do not seem to disturb her, it is said, but she just hates a thunderstorm.

- Evening Post 24 March 1936

Photo Caption “Many children continue to visit the the Zoo at Newtown, and a ride on the elephant retains its popularity”
Evening Post 11 January 1941



The Elephant is Sick.

 Nellikutha, the children's favourite at the Newtown Zoo, is very sick indeed and there are fears that she will not survive. Whether she picked up something harmful about the grounds or whether some poisonous or near poisonous substance found a way to her fodder is not known. She cannot stand and is under constant care by the curator, Mr. J. Cutler, and the Zoo staff acting under the advice of a veterinary surgeon. Nellie was presented to the Zoo by the Madras Government through the Wellington Zoological Society, in 1927, and has been consistently a model for all zoo animals, a lady to be relied upon, for placidity in temperament, and for heavy hauling when big jobs have been around In her first year or so Nellie was under the sole charge of an Indian keeper, but she needed no special control once she had settled down and learned the New Zealand accent perfectly. All Wellington children will certainly wish her well.

- Evening Post 8 August 1944

The sick elephant at Newtown Zoo is much better than she was at the beginning of the week, and is now taking some food, but only at expense of great coaxing and careful attention. It is now clear that she was poisoned by something picked up about the grounds. She has been watched night and day by the curator and her special keeper

-          Evening Post 11 August 1944


Evening Post image with Caption “Nellikutha the popular elephant whose death yesterday afternoon following an illness lasting eleven days.  The Curator (Mr. C.J Cutler, the elephant’s special attendant, and the Zoo veterinary surgeon made every effort to save her. Nellikutha was presented to the Wellington City Corporation 17 years ago by the Madras Government, and during that period has given great pleasure to many children.”
- Evening Post 16 August 1944


The chairman of the reserves committee, Councillor R.L. Macalister, at the City Council meeting on Wednesday, paid tribute to the great efforts made by the curator of Newtown Zoo (Mr. C. J. Cutler) and his stall to save the elephant's life. The full results of the examination of the carcass were not then available, but it was established that the elephant was suffering from intestinal trouble that would have been fatal in any case.

-          Evening Post 18 August 1944

The death of the Zoo elephant, Nellie, states Dr. E. Wolff, veterinary surgeon, after a post-mortem examination, was due to intestinal ulcers of long standing.

- Evening Post 22 August 1944

Nellikutha has been buried at one of the city tips. Though by no means full grown at 27 years of age, the dead elephant was a problem, but it was solved by using a heavy transporter to remove the carcass from the Zoo and by using a power excavator to dig the deep grave. Without such heavy equipment the transport and burial would have called for a team of workers.

-          Evening Post 22 August 1944


Farewell Nellikutha

FAREWELL NELLIKUTHA.  (With apologies to the song writer)

Till the clouds roll by, sweet Nellie,
We will mourn the loss of you.
No more will we, see your dear face, Nellie.
As we wander through the zoo.
Nor, astride your ample figure,
Shall we have another ride,
 For, tho' sad, 'tis true, sweet Nellie,
You have crossed the Great Divide.


- Evening Post 29 August 1944


Inquiries for New Elephant.

 "We should very much like to have the elephant replaced at Newtown Zoo as soon as possible, and inquiries are already being made," said Councillor R. L. Macalister, chairman of the reserves committee of the City Council, today.

The elephant which had died recently had been presented to the city by the Government of Madras, and it might be that some similar authority would assist the City Council in its efforts to obtain another elephant.

 When the animal presented by the Madras Government was brought to New Zealand it was under the care of an Indian keeper for some months, said Councillor Macalister, and probably that would be the best way of arranging transport and care. The advice given the committee was that the elephant' should not be more than about seven years of age.

- Evening Post 5 September 1944

A visit to the Zoo during the morning also proved very popular, although most of the children expressed regret that they were not able to see an elephant, owing to the recent death of Nellikutha. In the evening they were entertained by Mr. F. Reichel and his trained Pomeranian, Rajah, and later they attended a picture show.

-         Evening Post 15 January 1945
-          (Headliner Taranaki Children visit Government House)

Councillor Macalister said that shipping difficulties at present made it impossible to bring to New Zealand the six-year-old elephant to come from Calcutta….

-         Evening Post 3 April 1945
-         Headliner ‘Zoo Improvements – Luna Park Proposal’


Elephant for Zoo.

 Authority for the expenditure of £600 to purchase a young female elephant for the Wellington Zoo to replace Nellie, who died recently, was given by the City Council last night. The chairman of the reserves committee, Councillor R. L. Macalister, said there was a chance of securing another elephant, also female, as a gift.

-         Evening Post 13 September 1945


The catching of elephants in the forests of India is carried on systematically under a carefully organised Elephant Department. When the department was first formed, men were highly paid to make an exhaustive study of the manners of the elephants, and the best methods of catching, training, and keeping them. India was dotted with depots for training the captives—headquarters for men like Petersen Sahib, the first great elephant catcher, who reduced the process of their capture to a science taking not one or two, but 50 at a coup. When a herd is found a line of beaters is placed right round it, to keep it together, whilst a stockade, or keddah, is built. This takes two or three days, and when completed the herd of bewildered animals is driven down a narrow avenue to an open gateway. Behind and on either side of them, are men with gongs and rifles, and the huge beasts are glad to get through the opening into the apparent quietness and safety beyond. Once inside the keddah a huge gate is closed behind them, and they are safely trapped. Well-trained tame elephants are then taken in amongst them, and with their help the captives are safely secured to trees, and in a few days the process of taming and breaking them in is proceeded with.

-          Evening Post 10 April 1908

[2] Sagacity of Elephants
Sagacity seems a strong word to apply to an elephant, but certainly the tales of those who best know the beast would justify the term. It is said that the elephants in India will' besmear themselves with mud as a protection against insects, and that they will break branches from the trees and use them to brush away the flies. If this is true it shows something beyond instinct in the elephant it shows reflection. It is surprising how simple is the training of a newly-captured elephant and how soon the animal can be taught to work. For the first three days, which is usually the time before they will eat freely, the elephant is left quiet with perhaps a tame animal near him to give him confidence in his surroundings. If there be many to be tamed at the same time each captive is stalled between the tamed ones as soon as he eats his food naturally. When this stage of training is reached the tamer and his assistant station themselves one on each side with long-pointed sticks in their hands. A tame elephant also assists in case he is needed. The men at the skies rub the animal's back, soothing him with such epithets as  Ho, my son,' ' Ho, my father,' 'Ho, my mother,' which seem to have a calming effect. The next step is to take the animal to the tank to bathe, which is accomplished at first with the aid of tame elephants. After a time he can be taken alone, but as the process of taming depends upon the individual disposition of the beast, the time of preliminary training differs. A newly-tamed elephant is first put at the task of treading clay in a brickfield or, drawing a wagon in double harness with a tamed elephant. But the place where it shows the greatest amount of sagacity is in moving heavy weights. For, unlike the horse, it seems to comprehend the purpose and object of its work, and executes various details without the supervision of its master.

-NZ Tablet 6 May 1907