Trunk Murder?

The decision to send Ruby to Oklahoma was not insignificant, Iliff admits. "I think it's tough for any animal to be moved around," he says. "They're very conservative, they get used to their home, and that's what they like. And when you move them around it just causes stress."

Elephants have died during transport, but Ruby survived easily. She was first housed with another female Asian elephant, but when the two didn't get along, the Tulsa Zoo moved her in with Sneezy. She became pregnant, and, after a two-year stay, returned to Phoenix. An older female Asian elephant was loaned to the zoo as company for the future mom.

All went well until shortly before Ruby was to give birth. She showed signs of labor, but the birthing didn't start. Eventually, the vets determined that her baby had died in her womb. The only option, albeit a risky one, was to perform a Caesarean section.

There has never been a successful C-section performed on an elephant. Ruby's uterus was the size of a Volkswagen. Think about it: For an average human C-section, doctors cut through tissue that's about an inch thick. On a horse, it's four or five inches thick. On an elephant, it's four or five feet thick.

When Ruby's C-section was performed, the veterinary team discovered that her uterus had ripped, and an infection had spread. The dead calf weighed 320 pounds--about twice the size of an average newborn elephant. Ruby was immediately euthanized.

The irony is that Ruby and her baby would not have been together long. Her baby was a male. Even if Ruby had survived childbirth, she and her calf would have been separated six years later. It would have been difficult--if not impossible--to find a home for the male, and Ruby would have been alone again.

So why breed Asian elephants?
Everyone, zoo professionals and anti-zoo activists alike, agrees that elephants are endangered, that their numbers are dropping precipitously as development encroaches upon their habitats. Since their numbers are dwindling worldwide, captive breeding for reintroduction in nature sounds reasonable.

But even the most avid supporters of captive breeding have recently retooled their shtick, admitting that elephant reintroduction is impossible. The rate of habitat destruction in both Asia and Africa is so high that it cannot sustain the few elephants that still roam free in those places.

Since 1880, there have been 115 Asian elephants born in captivity in North America. Thirty percent of them have died within their first 30 days. In the wild, that rate is 13 percent.

The main reason elephants are bred in this country is to keep them on display. Some conservation-minded zoologists believe that's the best way to educate people about the elephant and its plight and encourage them to help save elephant habitats.

That line of reasoning drives the anti-zoo folks nuts.
Jamieson says zoos can have a negative impact by placating people into thinking that animals are okay.

"And I don't think there's really any evidence to show that people who get off on watching elephants in the Phoenix Zoo then . . . do anything to protect elephants in natural habitats," he says.

Randy Malamud, an English professor at Georgia State University and the author of an anti-zoo book, Reading Zoos, has a macabre suggestion. "A more effective ecological message would be to go into a zoo and see dead animals--to see something that evokes the reality of what we're doing to them, what we're doing to their habitats, that we're encroaching on where they live and how they live for our consumerist pleasures."

But both men make the same point: The harsh reality is that it would take a tremendous sea change in our society, including real sacrifice, to save the Asian elephant--if it isn't too late already.

"If we're serious about saving the global environment and the critters that come with it, the answer isn't that you get all warm and fuzzy about the animals you see in the zoo," Jamieson says. The answer, he says, lies in reducing consumption, reducing population and with spending more American money to preserve habitats overseas.

If we aren't using captive breeding and zoos to boost the wild elephant population, and the education part of the equation is dubious, what does this add up to?

Torture, according to Paula Kislak, a Los Angeles veterinarian who sits on the board of the Elephant Alliance, an international nonprofit group devoted to elephant protection. Kislak would rather see elephants take their chances in their shrinking habitats than see them on display.

Kislak has a lot to say about Ruby's life at the Phoenix Zoo, in particular. For one thing, she's not down with the painting.

"It's an exploitation. There's no doubt. You might as well dress up a monkey and have them be an organ grinder."

And, Kislak says, Ruby should never have been shipped to Tulsa to be bred.
"For her to be transported to breed her is in my opinion inhumane and unethical," the vet says. "They don't have to be bred in order to fulfill some sort of psychological need, and they're usually just bred to make babies that can either be sold or used as an attraction to getting more people into the zoo."

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