By Jonathan Carvalho
NEW BEDFORD — They are two of the city's most well-known residents, even by just their first names.
Most people in the city have heard of Ruth and Emily, the two Asian elephants who have called the Buttonwood Park Zoo home for decades.
But while nearly everyone can say they've heard about or even visited Ruth and Emily, they can't say they agree on what their futures should be.
In June 2010, an op-ed by Deborah Robinson of the animal rights group In Defense of Animals appeared in The Standard-Times urging Buttonwood Park Zoo to send the pair to a sanctuary. Since then, online petitions have garnered thousands of signatures, many of them from outside the New Bedford area, to move the elephants to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.
Around the zoo and the park, people had differing opinions on what should happen.
Ali King, visiting the zoo with her two children, said she has enjoyed visiting Ruth and Emily for years.
"We've been close to the elephants since my daughter was a little girl," she said, noting that her daughter had fed one of them when she was 18 months old. "We'd hate to see them go, but if that's best for them, they should go to the sanctuary."
Kelly Laberge of Tiverton, R.I., who was at the zoo with her young daughter, said she thinks the elephants are best off staying at Buttonwood.
"I say keep them here," Laberge said. "I know they take great care of them here, so let them stay."
Jim Barton of New Bedford was walking in Buttonwood Park and said he had read about an incident in January when Ruth escaped for 90 minutes on a frigid night. He said the fact that the elephant escaped because of an unlocked barn door "isn't right," and that it may be time to send them to a warm climate sanctuary like the one in Tennessee.
"It's time to let them go," said Barton. "I hate to see animals not in their natural environment."
Nicole Meyer, director of In Defense of Animals' Elephant Protection Campaign, has advocated for moving Ruth and Emily to a sanctuary. She said Buttonwood Park Zoo has long been seen by IDA as a poor environment for elephants, citing the cold weather in New Bedford, inadequate care, and chronic health problems in Ruth and Emily.
But Keith Lovett, director of zoological services at the Buttonwood Zoo, pushes back against claims that the elephants are unhealthy, saying their arthritis is not bad for their age. Emily is 50 and Ruth is 55, he estimates, but there is no clear record of their dates of birth.
Another major issue, according to Meyer, is that the elephants have displayed aggression with each other due to their close living quarters.
Lovett said a reason the elephants have social problems is because of the way they were raised. He said Emily came to the zoo in 1968 and for more than 20 years was its sole elephant. Ruth came in 1986 from a situation that was reported as abusive, Lovett said, and the two have had some problems with each other.
Meyer said in 2006, IDA records showed that Emily bit 6.5 inches off Ruth's tail, and that through 2011 their records show "at least 17 episodes of aggression" between the two.
At this point, Lovett said the two are like roommates.
"They get along, but they have limited interest in each other," he said. "Their true love is the keepers that take care of them, more than likely because of the way they were raised."
He also said he is unsure of how well they could integrate into a new herd.
"They do live in herds in the wild, but they don't join the herds at 55 years of age," he said.
But Meyer cited examples including an elephant named Maggie from a zoo in Anchorage, Alaska, who was housed alone for many years. Meyer said Maggie ended up integrating well with the herd of elephants at a sanctuary, and spent time with a variety of elephant companions.
"(Ruth and Emily's living space) is like two people living together just in a kitchen, locked there for their whole lives," said Meyer. "It really complicates their social dynamics."
Lovett says he is concerned about whether the animals can be transported from New Bedford to Tennessee safely, because it isn't like transporting a dog or a small animal. Meyer said it is not that risky, noting that it is done regularly with elephants over age 40.
"What's the point of keeping these two elephants when there are other solutions for them?" asked Meyer.
"If I truly thought they had a better chance somewhere else, why wouldn't I do it?" Lovett asked, saying, "This is what's best for them."
"Critics say we (keep them) because they're a cash cow," he said. "We charge $6 for an adult to get in. More people watch the elephants from outside the fence than who come into the zoo."
"The idea that they're going to run and frolic in the hundreds of acres of the sanctuary, it makes people feel warm and fuzzy but I don't know how much validity there is to it," said Lovett.
He said that when they go for walks, Ruth and Emily do not tend to stay out long and often want to return to their exhibit, which the zoo is expanding after the winter.
Winter's weather, including Ruth's foray into the cold, is another reason to transfer them, according to Meyer. She said the sanctuary's climate would be a benefit to the animals' well-being, and they can be locked indoors for up to 17 hours in cold weather due to New Bedford's climate.
Local advocate Joyce Rowley, who has organized Friends of Ruth & Emily and has written several newspaper op-ed pieces, declined to speak with The Standard-Times. In an email, Rowley said she was "declining on the basis that ... the 'other side' is nonsensical."
Rowley wrote that a story in the newspaper "will likely be just another article about how great the zoo is ... (and) in general promote the idea that the Friends are just a bunch of 'anti-zoo folks.'"
Lovett said more acreage and better weather are not enough to justify sending the elephants to a sanctuary, noting that they have bonded with their human keepers and that elephants are intelligent animals who can "hold grudges" and do not always take kindly to new people.
"I don't think people would take the same approach of sending Grandma to Florida because there are hundreds of acres there for her," Lovett said.
Meyer said Ruth and Emily deserve to retire after life at the Buttonwood Park Zoo.
"The welfare of these two individual elephants needs to be the priority," she said. "After decades of serving the New Bedford community they deserve retirement to a facility that can meet their needs." Video.