Trunk Murder?

Ruby, the Phoenix Zoo's Asian elephant, died last month when her pregnancy went awry, and the city got the blues. Ruby had lived here almost 25 years--longer than most of us--and she'd become famous as one of the world's most unlikely painters. Her works raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the zoo. She was a landmark in a city with few enduring icons.

The city was soggy with tears. The outpouring of grief--the candlelight vigils, flowers, cards and poetry--came in a deluge. You'd have thought Princess Diana had died all over again. The zoo almost tripled its attendance record at the free day dedicated to Ruby's memory when 43,000 people showed up.

I heard of Ruby's death on a Friday afternoon at work, raced for the Kleenex box, and, driving home that night, I sobbed along to "Goodbye Ruby Tuesday" on the radio and wished I owned one of Ruby's paintings. For days, I couldn't hear her name without getting misty. Alas, poor Ruby. Cut short in her prime. Robbed by fate of the joy of motherhood.

I felt real bad.
But I was about to feel worse. I was about to speak to Dale Jamieson.

Dale Jamieson is the Henry R. Luce Professor in Human Dimensions of Global Change at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He teaches environmental studies courses with titles like "American Environmental Thought," and, for the past 13 years, he's been a thorn in the paw of the North American zoo community, challenging its concept of zoos in general and criticizing specific zoo practices--like the breeding of captive Asian elephants.

Based on Jamieson's beliefs, Ruby shouldn't have died. She shouldn't have been bred in the first place. According to him, Ruby shouldn't have lived at the zoo, let alone become a renowned pachyderm painter.

Here's what Jamieson believes: Elephants don't belong in captivity. We don't have the right to keep them for our entertainment. There's no educational value in seeing them in zoos. There is no humane way to keep elephants in captivity. And particularly pertinent to Ruby, there is no biological reason to breed them in captivity.

"The reason that zoos like yours breed elephants has very little to do with any endangered species issues. It has to do with the fact that baby elephants bring people to zoos," he says.

Jamieson is not alone. Anti-zoo activists are sprinkled across the country. I found them in university English departments, veterinary practices, even in zoos. But they're not always willing to speak up.

"Zoos are extremely popular institutions in the public mind, and they like to portray anybody who's critical as being against fun," Jamieson explains. "It's like being against football."

Of course, the sober activists are facing down the entire weepy-eyed population of metropolitan Phoenix, not to mention Ruby's devastated zookeepers, when they take such diehard stands. But a closer look at their arguments raises valid questions about the wisdom of training wild elephants to paint, dance, live in cages or breed in captivity. Real elephants, it appears, aren't very much like Babar or Dumbo at all. And perhaps we, her biggest fans, owe Ruby an apology.

In the wild, Asian elephants travel in matriarchal herds of up to 200, migrating as many as 25 miles a day. They're highly social. Often a herd will contain three or four generations.

Little is known of Ruby's origins. Only a shipping receipt remains from her arrival in Phoenix. She was taken from her mother in a Thai logging camp at 7-months-old, and arrived in a wooden crate at Sky Harbor airport in February 1974. She and the crate weighed a total of 360 pounds. At her death, Ruby weighed 9,000 pounds.

Initially, Ruby's home was a 20 foot by 30 foot pen. For many years she lived alone, except for visits from her keepers, who exercised her inside the pen, and chained her front legs to walk her around the zoo. Her artistic career began after her keepers saw Ruby scribbling in the dirt with a stick and offered her a brush and paint. Eventually, she moved into larger quarters with two African elephants. African and Asian elephants are different species and as the three grew older, it became apparent that fights would break out if they weren't separated. Ruby's keepers decided she needed the fellowship of her own kind. The Asian elephant's innate need for companionship, says current zoo executive director Jeff Williamson, was a primary factor in the decision to breed Ruby.

Warren Iliff, who now runs the Long Beach Aquarium in California, was the Phoenix Zoo's director at the time.

Initially, Iliff says, the zoo tried artificial insemination--a procedure that only recently worked for the first time.

When that failed, the zoo shipped Ruby to the Tulsa Zoo, to mate with a male Asian elephant named Sneezy. Very few male elephants are kept in American zoos, because almost no zoo is equipped to house a grown male. They are much larger and stronger than females, and very difficult to control. In the wild, they don't travel in packs with the females, but hang out on their own and show up when it's time to breed.

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