The hottest local public relations man is not slick or manipulative. At work he wears boots and a cowboy hat instead of the usual overworked grin and slimy handshake. His client is a total beast who nonetheless has sparked an incredible buzz in the international media.
The hot publicist is Dick George, communications director of the Phoenix Zoo. His client is Ruby, a teenage Asian elephant who paints. Sign up today to purchase one of Ruby's paintings and you'll wait two years for delivery, with no guarantee of quality, price, or, for that matter, delivery. Ruby paints because she enjoys it, and the day may come when she will enjoy it no more and stop, though the demand for her work likely will not. A serious artist for only four years, Ruby already has had successful exhibitions of her work in a Scottsdale art gallery and on the Arizona State University campus. Ruby's larger canvases sell for $1,000 and up.
The readers of dozens of newspapers and magazines around the world have learned about this phenomenon, as have the viewers of network TV news. Ruby has made Newsweek, the NBC Nightly News, National Geographic, the Cable News Network, The Smithsonian, Inside Edition--even the National Enquirer. When the reporters call--one called the other day from London; a few weeks ago it was from Sao Paulo--they talk to Dick George. "When I pick up the phone, I never know what language I'll hear," he says.
This avalanche of press interest is not the alchemy of a spin-doctoring soap salesman. Ruby is legit, and her PR guy, though pleased by her breakout, also is a little amazed. Their relationship is long-standing, respectful, professional and personal, and likely will outlast Ruby's sudden celebrity. "How did I ever wind up being a press agent for a painting elephant?" George wonders aloud, laughing. "Last thing I remember I was in graduate school, you know, studying Dickens."
RUBY WAS BORN in a logging camp in Thailand in 1973 and brought to the Phoenix Zoo in February 1974. In the spring of 1987, Ruby's keepers noticed the elephant making marks in the sand at her feet, using her trunk or a stick held in her trunk. This has been observed by elephant watchers for years. It's very rare. One jumbo in a herd of 100 occasionally will etch. "Basically, Ruby's painting is a modification of that pre-existing natural behavior," George says. "Even today, in odd moments when nobody is around and she gets the inclination, Ruby spends time by herself with a rock or a stick in her trunk, just doing little marks in the dirt.
"With all the power invested in me as a person untrained in all the sciences, it seems to me that among elephants as perhaps among people, abilities are unequally distributed. Not everybody can draw. Not everybody can play the saxophone or dance. Not everybody has leadership abilities. Maybe it works that way with elephants as well. Maybe Ruby is truly a unique individual with an inclination toward image-making. I'd like to think that. Scientifically, I don't know if it holds any water or not."
From scratches in the sand, the next logical step was to assemble an extra-sturdy easel, a coffee can full of brushes and a palette of nine nontoxic, water-soluble paints. Ruby has done more than 200 paintings so far, and averages one new creation every week. She would work more often, and it is believed by many that she wouldn't mind, but Ruby's output is carefully controlled by the zoo's animal handlers. Ruby's production is limited not because of a desire to create a commodity. "It's always been a reward for her," says George. "Ruby paints, as she always has, once or twice a week, if she's been a good girl, if she's done her homework and done her exercises and if the keepers have time.
"We won't turn it into a public entertainment. It was designed to be fun for Ruby." THE PHOENIX ZOO'S elephant exhibit is a big divot in the earth, larger than an acre. Ruby and two companions, both female African elephants, wander the space, which contains a few trees, a pond with some ducks and several hooved animals who provide visual balance. The elephants are fed inside a boxy building at the rear of the exhibit. The room itself is about the size of a drive-up lube shop. The elephants' share of the space ends at a cage made of giant steel pipes. The keepers walk the perimeter of the cage, delivering water and meals--the elephants eat about 200 pounds a day of Bermuda hay, alfalfa pellets, raw potatoes, carrots, fruit and "sweet feed"--a concoction of oats and barley mixed with molasses and vitamins. The humans enter the elephants' territory by stepping between the foot-wide bars. Visitors to Ruby's house say they can see her eyes widen when the keepers discuss painting. The process starts backstage, when one of the keepers clamps a pre-stretched canvas to an easel specially made to receive Ruby's sometimes forceful brush strokes. Small cups of paint are inserted into a customized palette (the order of the paint cups is occasionally altered, just to prove that Ruby isn't painting by numbers). During a session, one keeper holds the easel and keeps the brushes clean, the other holds the paints and helps Ruby with prep work. Keepers Tawny Carlson and Jerry Brown first chain the ankles of the two smaller Africans (who also occasionally paint, but who don't seem to get quite the charge out of it that Ruby does). Then Ruby is led out into the yard and into a small patch of shade. Ruby sniffs strangers carefully. Visitors are requested to blow gently into Ruby's trunk, apparently the most polite kind of salutation between humans and Asian elephants.