Belfast’s ‘elephant angel’ inspires film

Art Parkinson plays a schoolboy who makes it his mission to protect Buster the elephant from Belfast Zoo during German air raids on the city
Art Parkinson plays a schoolboy who makes it his mission to protect Buster the elephant from Belfast Zoo during German air raids on the city

A new film set in Belfast – and inspired by real events – tells the story of the fight to save an elephant during air raid bombings of the city in 1941.

The release date for ‘Zoo’ has not yet been confirmed for the film produced in partnership with NI Screen and directed by local man Colin McIvor but it is expected to hit cinemas around summer time.

The film is based on the true story of Denise Austin who secretly walked a young elephant from Belfast Zoo to the backyard of her north Belfast home each evening to protect it during World War Two.

She was known as the ‘elephant angel’ and her actions came in 1941, a time when marksmen from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, following a directive from The Ministry of Public Security, shot dead 23 animals at Belfast Zoo.

Because of a ruling that all potentially dangerous animals had to be destroyed in case they were to escape during Luftwaffe bombings, the RUC men killed one hyena, six wolves, one puma, one tiger, one black bear, one Barbary lion, two polar bears, one lynx and giant rat named Hugo.

Ms Austin was responsible to protecting Sheila the elephant during this period.

According to Belfast Zoo, Ms Austin was one of the first female zoo keepers to work there. When the head zookeeper left work, she took Sheila from her enclosure, walked her a short distance to her house at Whitewell Road and walked her back up to the zoo in the morning, sometimes stopping at a shop for stale bread. During the night, Sheila slept in the Austins’ garage.

In the new film set during the Belfast Blitz and filmed at several locations around the city including the zoo itself and Belfast Castle, Denise’s role is played by Penelope Wilton from Downton Abbey.

Her role in saving the elephant – named Buster in the film – is supplemented by a group of young misfits, who also are prepared to do everything it takes to protect the animal.

One of those children determined to save Buster is Art Parkinson of Game of Thrones fame. The film also stars Toby Jones who won a BAFTA for his part in Detectorists, Ian McElhinney, who recently appeared in Derry Girls, Ian O’Reilly of Moone Boy fame and Amy Huberman, the Irish actress married to Brian O’Driscoll.