NEW BEDFORD — Local activists are suing under the Endangered Species Act to try to get Buttonwood Park Zoo’s two elephants relocated to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.
A nonprofit organization, Friends of Ruth & Emily, filed suit Sept. 21 in U.S. District Court against the City of New Bedford, which owns the zoo, claiming the zoo’s possession of captured elephants, and the living conditions it provides for the two Asian elephants, violate the act.
“Their exhibit at the Zoo does nothing to teach people about endangered species, nor even about elephants in the wild, nor even conservation,” the group says in the complaint. “Instead, people learn that elephants are disposable spectacles and toys for their children that can be held in substandard and dangerous conditions.”
The elephants suffer “just for human amusement and ‘selfies,’” the complaint says.
Zoo Director Keith Lovett refuted the claims in a written statement Thursday, saying its elephant program received an overall positive review from an independent panel of experts in 2015.
"Buttonwood Park Zoo takes the care and safety of our beloved elephants seriously, as we do with all of our animals," he said. "Emily and Ruth have called New Bedford home for more than thirty years, and have thrived here."
In the lawsuit, Friends of Ruth & Emily alleges that the zoo:
- Keeps the elephants in a small enclosure that interferes with normal behavior;
- Confines them in the barn for two-thirds of their lives (mainly when the zoo is closed);
- Keeps them on hard floors and compacted dirt;
- Fails to protect the older and smaller Ruth from repeated attacks by Emily; and
- Does not provide adequate veterinary care, proper food or enrichment.
The group’s leader, Joyce Rowley, has spoken before the City Council and co-authored opinion pieces over a period of several years. She is representing the group in court and is listed in the group's incorporation papers as its president, CEO, treasurer, clerk, and director.
The court document says Rowley has developed an “aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual” relationship with Emily and Ruth.
Rowley agreed to respond to questions only by email, and did not reply by press time.
Lovett said the complaint is "entirely lacking in merit." The zoo is inspected regularly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and is in good standing with both, he said. It is one of 232 facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"We have been and remain committed to providing the highest quality of care to our elephants," he said.
In the independent review, which the zoo initiated in response to complaints by the same complainant, the panel consisted of an elephant veterinarian with vast experience working with elephants in zoos and sanctuaries, a nationally renowned veterinary behaviorist, and a captive elephant management expert, according to Lovett.
The panel conducted in-depth, first-hand observations, with unconstrained access to the elephants, facilities, keepers and records, he said.
The resulting report said the elephant staff "boasts an impressive combined amount of hands-on experience in both the zoo profession generally, and specifically working closely with elephants."
With regard to aggression, the panel said "assertive and displacement behaviors" by Emily happened more frequently in the past but had waned significantly. As of 2015, none had been observed or noted since February of 2013.
"This is directly attributable to changes made in the elephant program, and perhaps to a lesser degree to habituation as the two elephants are closing in on 30 years of life together," the report said.
The lawsuit claims the Friends of Ruth & Emily have recorded approximately four more "attacks" in the past two years, the most recent on Sept. 4 and 6 of this year.
Emily arrived at the zoo at age 4, in 1968; she is now 53 years old and is the 12th-oldest elephant in an accredited zoo, according to Buttonwood Park Zoo. Ruth, who is 59, was an elephant-for-hire at parties before being abandoned in 1986, and she arrived at the zoo shortly afterward. She is the third-oldest elephant in an accredited zoo.