Group Fights to Retire Massachusetts Zoo’s Elephants

The Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford Massachusetts shared this photo of its Asian elephants, Ruth and Emily, in a Facebook post advertising Elephant Appreciation Day on Sept. 23. (Photo credit: Lindsey Audunson)

BOSTON (CN) – Challenging a Massachusetts zoo’s plan to close its elephant exhibit when the main attractions die, local advocates brought a federal complaint to have the long-suffering beasts live out their last days at a natural reserve.

Friends of Ruth & Emily is the name of a charity in New Bedford, Massachusetts, named for the two Asian elephants acquired for the city zoo in Buttonwood Park.

Though members of an endangered species, the group says their exploitation by the zoo has no educational or conservation benefits.

“Instead, people learn that elephants are disposable spectacles and toys for their children than can be held in substandard and dangerous conditions that causes them to suffer just for human amusement and ‘selfies,’” the complaint states, filed on Sept. 21 in Boston.

Friends of Ruth & Emily says the city finally copped on in 2013 that New Bedford’s climate was not suited to an elephant exhibit.

“During snow storms and frigid conditions,” according to the complaint, “the elephants are kept inside, sometimes for days at a time.”

With the animals having spent 20 of the last 30 years locked in a barn, the city announced that it would close the elephant exhibit after Ruth and Emily die, the group says.

Fighting for more immediate relief, Friends of Ruth & Emily note that there is a 2,700-acre sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, where New Bedford’s elephants can live out their remaining days.

“The sanctuary allows elephants to be elephants, not exhibits,” the complaint states.

Friends of Ruth & Emily notes that its namesakes are both older than 50, suffering from a series of chronic injuries, including foot problems from standing on concrete for hours and gastrointestinal problems that nearly claimed Ruth’s life recently.

“They spend at least 16 hours a day every day standing, walking, sleeping and eating in their own considerable waste,” said the complaint. “As a result of their captivity at the zoo, they suffer a slew of chronic foot problems, gastric problems, food deprivation, skin problems and other illnesses that may lead to premature death.”

While the elephants’ advocates call themselves “friends,” they note that Ruth and Emily themselves are anything but.

“It is well documented that they do not get along,” the complaint says of the elephants, noting that Emily makes it a point to attack Ruth, whom she outweighs by 2,000 lbs., several times a year.

“There have been 36 attacks by Emily against Ruth recorded by the zoo between 2005 to 2015, when the zoo stopped recording them,” the complaint states. “These included Emily hitting, biting, headbutting, shoving and pushing Ruth down. … In 2006, Emily bit 6-1/2 [inches] off Ruth’s tail.”

Ruth lost another 10 inches off her tail in 2014, according to the complaint, when the zoo’s failure to lock the barn during a blizzard caused the elephant to suffer hypothermia and frostbite.

Friends attributes Emily’s antisocial behavior to mistreatment by her training at the Baton Rouge Zoo in the 1980s.

Citing the likelihood of irreparable injury, the group says further abuse of Ruth and Emily must be prohibited through declaratory and injunctive relief.

“The zoo has repeatedly claimed that there will be no more elephants at the zoo after Ruth and Emily die and their exhibit will be replaced by rhinoceroses,” the complaint states. “In fact, the zoo’s master plan presented in August 2016 shows just that. During recent barn renovations, the bars were built into the floor to prevent rhinoceroses from digging under them. Therefore, retaining Ruth and Emily while they suffer daily serves no real purpose. The physical, psychological, and emotional harm to Ruth and Emily overshadow the zoo’s self-interest in keeping them at the zoo until the rhinoceroses arrive.”

Asian elephants have been protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1976. There are approximately 40,000 left in the world.

The complaint also notes that there is currently a study underway to consider privatizing the Buttonwood Zoo. The complaint seeks an order preventing the city from being able to transfer the property rights of the two elephants to any private entity that may purchase the zoo.

Although a representative from the zoo has not respond to an email seeking comment, the zoo’s director previously characterized the efforts of the Friends of Ruth and Emily as well intentioned but misguided.

“The public should know that seasoned, dedicated zoo professionals are the ones deciding what’s best for our elephants,” zoo director Keith Lovett said in a 2014 blog post. “That is exactly how it should be. I am proud of our efforts to provide care to Ruth and Emily and all the other animals entrusted to us.”

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