Trunk Murder?

I asked Kislak: But won't there come a day when there are no more Asian elephants in the wild?

"I don't have a problem if they become extinct particularly," she says, "because we can't and won't give them what they need to keep them happy and comfortable in captivity."

Was Ruby happy? We liked to think she was happy. But it's impossible to discern an animal's emotional state.

Dick George has worked at the Phoenix Zoo for 21 years. He began as a photographer, and his first job was to photograph Ruby. Over the years, he watched her paint 200 pictures and wrote a book about her.

But even George, who choked up several times during our conversation about Ruby, admits the elephant probably would have been happier in the wild.

"I think Ruby was a genius at adapting to the world that we imposed on her. It was not the way of life that evolution prepared for her. . . . Ruby was meant to wander a healthy rain forest. She never got that chance. But what she did was cope with us, and I think she was magnificent."

And, George adds, "Many of the people--and I'm one of them--who work at the zoo have great reservations about captivity in the first place."

Zoo director Jeff Williamson may be one of those, although he's obviously uncomfortable delving too deeply into such politically agitated waters.

Williamson observes that zoos have made great strides in the past 40 years, that even in the years Ruby lived at the Phoenix Zoo her enclosure was enlarged, her behavior enriched, and more things were learned about how to keep her comfortable.

He believes the zoo's role is education.
"The whole story about Ruby is about trying to talk to people in ways that cause them to respect all plants and animals for what they are," Williamson says.

But how much can people really learn from a painting elephant locked behind walls, half a world away from her homeland?

The painting, Williamson says, choosing his words slowly and carefully, "isn't necessarily something that we ought to try to replicate. . . . It doesn't mean anything. Painting is not a characteristic of Asian elephants."

In the end, the zookeeper and the anti-zoo activists have more in common than you might think. Williamson admits there's no way to replicate an elephant's natural habitat at the Phoenix Zoo, which houses more than 1,000 species on 125 acres. And, he admits, the education process is awfully difficult.

"There aren't success stories, because as a culture we continue to live in ways that don't value the rest of life," he says.

But Williamson stops short at the notion that we should do away with zoos.
"I don't think zoos should go out of business," he says. "What they are has, is, and is going to evolve."

After all, the zookeeper says, "Things that don't change in step with their surroundings go extinct."

Contact Amy Silverman at 229-8443 or at her online address: asilverman@newtimes.com

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