Judge Nixes Bid to Free Elderly Zoo Elephants

BOSTON (CN) – America’s oldest zoo-kept elephants can stay right where they are in Massachusetts, a federal judge ruled, rejecting a push to have the prodigious pachyderms moved to a roaming Tennessee sanctuary.

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)

U.S. District Judge William Young laid out his findings Tuesday in 32 careful pages, outlining first how the Asian elephants Ruth and Emily came to spend the greater part of their lives as the New Bedford’s Buttonwood Zoo, and parsing then how still-evolving elephant-husbandry practices have shaped the quality of those lives.

Joyce Rowley, a longtime zoo patron, contended in her 2017 lawsuit that Ruth and Emily’s captivity at Buttonwood flouted tenets of the Endangered Species Act.

As Judge Young noted Tuesday, however, “the court finds the contrary to be true.” Indeed, some minor lapses notwithstanding, Young called the zoo’s record of improving Ruth and Emily’s surroundings generally laudable.

“Commendably, the city has supported its zoo with an adequate

budget; has attracted a cadre of dedicated, professional, empathetic, and innovative zookeepers; and has employed top notch veterinarians wherever necessary,” the ruling states.

Though some experts question the welfare of keeping endangered species in captivity at all, Young said the law is simply not on Rowley’s side.

“The reference standard for an endangered species in captivity is not a goal requiring the least restrictive environment or the most natural possible setting,” he wrote. “Rather, it is generally accepted and appropriate animal husbandry.”

While the average life expectancy for Asian elephants in captivity in North America is 44.8 years, Ruth and Emily are 61 and 55. Ruth was about 28 when Buttonwood took her in, shortly after she was found abandoned at a Danvers, Massachusetts, dump site in 1986.

Scars on the elephant’s body hinted at excessive and abuse with a bull hook, and she remains at least a thousand pounds smaller than the younger elephant Emily, who was just 4 when she came to Buttonwood.

Though Rowley accused the zoo of failing to keep Ruth safe from ongoing attacks by Emily, Judge Young emphasized that the plaintiff’s lack of expertise on animal behavior dooms her negligence claims.

The city of New Bedford and Rowley’s nonprofit, the Friends of Ruth and Emily, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Since the original lawsuit was filed in 2017, the barn where the elephants stay at night has been expanded. Furthermore a new system of hydraulic-powered metal barriers allows zoo workers to prepare meals and clean the barn daily without having to use a bull horn for protection.

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

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