Zookeepers Testify at Trial on Elderly Captive 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) – Describing instances where they had to discipline two Asian elephants that have lived for decades a Massachusetts zoo, current and former workers testified Monday that they used the minimum force necessary to curb bad behavior. 

“She swung her trunk on us, so we laid her down for time out,” Shelley Avila-Martins said of Emily, the older and larger of the Buttonwood Park Zoo’s two pachyderms. “That’s what I was taught to do. It’s like giving my kid a time out and making him sit in a chair.”

Avila-Martins, who works now as an animal-control officer in New Bedford, took the stand this morning at the start of a bench trial where community members are fighting to have Emily and fellow elephant Ruth retired from Buttonwood.

In a 2017 complaint, the group Friends of Ruth and Emily claimed that Buttonwood has been exploiting the elephants with no educational or conservation benefits. 

Group president Joyce Rowley has been fighting the case from the beginning without an attorney and undertook questioning at the trial today of Avila-Martins and another zookeeper, Kathryn Harding.

Harding also testified about an instance where she had to discipline Emily but admitted that she used a device known as bull hook, also known as an elephant goad, which consists of a metal hook on the end of a long stick.

“Usually you don’t have to put much force in it,” Harding said, adding that she used the handle end, not the hook, when she hit Emily.

Animal trainers sometimes tap an elephant with the blunt side of a bull hook to control its movements, such as tapping it to step left or to lift up its foot. The hook can be used to direct the elephant’s legs in certain situations.

“She had made an aggressive move toward me,” Harding said of why she hit Emily with the stick. “You don’t want that kind of behavior to escalate.”

In her complaint meanwhile, Crowley flagged Emily’s aggressive behavior as a major cause for concern. Though Crowley says that Emily has attacked Ruth dozens of times in the 32 years they’ve lived together at Buttonwood, Avila-Martins downplayed the behavior.

“I’ve seen Emily displace Ruth, but not be physically aggressive,” she said. “It’s not a head butt, it’s just a push to the side. Just like if I put a bowl down for two puppies to eat.”

Rowley has also noted that Emily has bitten off two chunks of Ruth’s tail over the years. 

Avila-Martins said on the stand that she recalled one of the incidents, though she did not observe it firsthand. As for aggression toward humans, the former zookeeper also described an occasion where Emily swung its trunk at her.

With the trial expected to last at least two more days, U.S. District Judge William Young said he may yet visit Buttonwood to inspect the elephants’ barn.

Although the zoo has announced that it plans to close its elephant exhibit once Emily and Ruth die, Crowley says the elephants should instead be allowed to retire at a 2,700-acre natural reserve in Hohenwald, Tennessee.

Ruth and Emily are 54 and 60 years old, respectively, and allegedly suffer from a series of chronic injuries, including foot problems from standing on concrete for hours and life-threatening gastrointestinal problems.

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

The city of New Bedford is represented by attorneys John Markey and Kreg Espinola. They contend that the trip to Tennessee would be harmful to the senior elephants, and that zoo conditions have been improving.

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.

Harding said that this was part of a larger trend toward improvement conditions for Ruth and Emily.

“I think one of the biggest ways it changing is going from free to protected contact, and we do a lot more positive reinforcement with them,” said Harding. “The exhibit has been expanded. The floor has been changed. Now the floor is a sand substrate, so there’s much more cushioning for the elephants. It’s better for their feet and joints.”

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