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Controversy surrounds the fate of Buttonwood Zoo's Asian elephants

Ruth, one of two Asian elephants housed at the Buttonwood Zoo.
Ruth, one of two Asian elephants housed at the Buttonwood Zoo.

The Buttonwood Zoo in New Bedford, MA houses two Asian elephants: Ruth, 55, and Emily, 48. Recently, Ruth escaped her enclosure in the middle of a snowstorm and frigid temperatures. During the cold, the elephants are kept in a heated barn but Ruth decided she didn't want to be there and left. A neglectful employee had forgotten to lock the gate.

It is unknown how long she was out in the cold by the time employees discovered she had exited the barn. She was immediately brought inside, covered with warming blankets and put on antibiotics to thwart frostbite. Ruth was being monitored by the zoo's veterinarian for hypothermia as well.

Because elephants have thin skins, they are prone to hypothermia in cold temperatures – anything less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Elephants fare better in warmer climates. The Asian elephant is an endangered species and their average life span is 60 years. They are incredibly intelligent, self-aware and roam great distances foraging for food such as fruit, grass, roots and tree bark.

An organization out of New Bedford, Friends of Ruth and Emily, have proposed that the aging elephants be transferred to an elephant sanctuary. Since the elephants are technically owned by the city of New Bedford, it is up to the City Council. The group has petitioned the council, which was accepted, but no further action has been taken.

Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act report injuries Ruth and Emily have sustained due to their living environment. The elephants, up until very recently, were sleeping on concrete flooring, which caused pressure sores to their face and haunches. Ruth and Emily are housed in a concrete barn for 15 and a half hours each day, longer if the temperatures are too cold. Each elephant has ankle and foot problems due to standing in place for extensive periods of time. They have also been covered in their own feces due to tight sleeping quarters.

The zoo has stated that when one of the elephants dies, the other will go to another zoo or a sanctuary. Zoo representatives have admitted they will not replace the elephants because the New England climate is too cold and their environment is too small.

The director of the zoo, Keith Lovett, and Mayor Jon Mitchell want to keep the elephants at the zoo. They oppose the idea of Ruth and Emily going to the Elephant Sanctuary.

There has been talk of expanding the exhibit to meet regulatory standards, however, that has not happened yet. One of the standards required is to switch from a “free contact” environment to a “protected contact” environment, which would do away with the bull hooks currently used. This would probably also prohibit the zoo from having the elephants perform tricks for the audience.

Lovett is hesitant regarding the updates the zoo needs to house the elephants due to cost and construction. Standards and upgrades need to be met by the fall of 2014.

Both Ruth and Emily have shown distress from their small living enclosure. Emily has grown aggressive toward Ruth, harming her, and they are separated when in the barn. Each elephant has displayed signs of stress, exhibited through rocking, swaying and pacing.

The sanctuary ready to step up and take Ruth and Emily is the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The sanctuary has already offered to pay for transport and use its own trailer to get Ruth and Emily there. The sanctuary has its own veterinarian on site, is closed to the public and follows the “protected contact” protocol so the elephants are free to just be elephants. With thousands of acres, elephants are able to roam, graze and forage at will.

For more information regarding Ruth and Emily, watch the You Tube video or visit Send Ruth and Emily to the Elephant Sanctuary.

Buttonwood Zoo
Friends of Ruth and Emily
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee
South Coast Today
South Coast Today
National Geographic

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