Why We Can’t Look Away from Topsy

If anyone knows anything about Topsy, it is because they saw on YouTube or heard about from someone the one-minute film of her killing, ‘Electrocuting an Elephant’, made by the Edison Manufacturing Company. This is how I discovered Topsy. I saw ‘Electrocuting an Elephant’ when it was included in two documentaries on animals. The first, ‘The Animals Film’ directed by Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux, was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1982.⁠ The second film was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Jayne Loader in the 1990s but was sadly never completed.

In 1982, I was the campaign organizer at the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. I knew from my work with BUAV and previously with Compassion In World Farming that it was important to include in our campaign materials as many photographs as possible of the cruel treatment of farmed animals and animals in research. But publishable photographs from verifiable sources were almost impossible to obtain. We relied upon photographs that generally showed inside factory farms and research laboratories. Or we reproduced with permission photographs published in newspapers or magazines. As direct action became more sophisticated and technology made it easier, activists illegally entered or worked undercover to document their experiences. We used their photographs and documentation whenever we could. Of course, we knew animals were abused. But we rarely saw photographs and videos of what it looked like.

I remember vividly the night in 1982 when I was invited by the filmmakers to a private screening of a rough cut of ‘The Animals Film’. I left for my North London flat stunned from watching two hours of footage of animals not only in laboratories and factory farms but also in the countryside, entertainment, and homes. Most of the footage I had never seen before. It was a distressing and depressing experience. I had never seen so many images of animals killed, tortured, and abused. On the tube home, I realised we declared war against animals. We were winning. They were losing. We are killing all the wild animals walking on the land, flying in the air, and swimming in the oceans. It was a matter of time I thought before the only animals left on earth will be those bred by us and kept in cages for our selfish purposes.

Topsy may be one among billions of casualties in the war against animals. But watching the film of her electrocution, I am confronted by her cruel death. I cannot ignore it. Or wish it away. I must tell her story.

We can’t look away from Topsy.