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.
Dick George is careful to coach first-timers on the right protocol. "Sometimes they get so carried away blowing into there that they hyperventilate," he says. "I say, `You don't have to inflate her! Just blow gently.'" George says Ruby will give a new person a couple of tries at blowing howdy but then gets huffy if they don't comply. "Some say it's a sigh," says George. "I say it's her way of teaching you elephant etiquette."
Impolite visitors--perhaps visitors who suspect that the blowing-in- the-trunk bit is some kind of weird pachyderm-handler prank--sometimes get blasted with giant gobs of elephant snot. "The first time I was around her I did not blow in her trunk," says George. "I have never been rude to an Asian elephant in the thirteen years since that happened."
Brown, standing behind the easel, holds a half-dozen artists' brushes, fan style, in front of Ruby's trunk. Ruby touches one. Brown hands it to Carlson, who stands next to Ruby's left front leg. Carlson holds the paint palette and asks Ruby to pick a color. After Ruby touches one of the covered cups with her trunk, Carlson dips the brush into the paint and hands it to Ruby, who folds the tip of her trunk around the brush and quickly moves it to the easel.
Ruby often uses quick, slashing strokes, alternating that style with a circular movement of the brush. After a few swats with one color, the brush-selection process is repeated, then Ruby picks another color. The handlers feed Ruby verbal cues all along, and offer words of encouragement after particularly enthusiastic paint applications. The process ends when Ruby stops picking paints. The keepers have experimented repeatedly to be sure that the painting isn't a directed activity. When a canvas and colored chalk are left in the enclosure, Ruby will walk away from food--and elephants are very fond of food; in the wild, they'll forage for eighteen hours a day--to create. It's clear to all that Ruby chooses the colors, the brushes, the subject matter--and the point of completion for each work of art. When Ruby is done with a painting, Carlson pops the top off a black felt marker. Ruby then grabs the pen and "signs" her work, often in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. DICK GEORGE'S people skills were accumulated over the years at various universities and in the United States Air Force. He escaped academia one day after what he describes as a "reverse Zen" experience. "I was somewhat reluctantly pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Arizona State, when I had a great personal crisis one morning," he says. "I woke up and discovered that I no longer cared about the semicolon."
After some goofing off--"As an Air Force veteran and as a veteran of four years in graduate school, I was not prepared to make up my mind about anything," he says--George came across a newsletter from the Phoenix Zoo. The magazine carried a call for volunteers. George quickly advanced from volunteer to part-time photographer to full-time PR-guy status in January 1979. Ruby entered his life a few years later. George now spends lots of time laying pithy quotes on reporters from Newsweek. One of the questions he hears most often is, Is it Art? "I've had one of Ruby's paintings on the wall of my office for two and a half years," George answers. "I don't know whether it's art, and frankly I don't care. I don't want to quibble over the definition of art. But I've looked at that painting every day for nearly two and a half years and I've looked at it with a great deal of pleasure. It reminds me of the very strong and forceful personality that made the painting, and I enjoy it."
"I'VE KNOWN RUBY longer than any of the keepers," says George. "The first assignment I got here, in January 1979, was to photograph Ruby, and I've probably photographed her 1,000 times since. But if I were to go into that exhibit without a keeper, I'd be killed. I don't belong to the herd. I don't have a position in the elephant's view of the world."
Ruby and her fellow elephants are not just a display. They are a herd, and the keepers have established themselves as the dominant animals in the pack. Irregular visitors to the space--even old friends like Dick George--do not rank. The Phoenix Zoo's elephant keepers, along with their colleagues in other zoos, animal parks and circuses, work without much of a net. The hooked cane that trainers use around the animals has about as much punitive effect on an elephant's hide as a toothbrush would have on a human's. None of the keepers outweighs Ruby's trunk. The only true defense that handlers have against sudden death by elephant squashing is trust. Carlson, Brown and the other handlers confront potential mayhem every time they enter Ruby's realm. Carlson can stand under her four-ton artist friend and call her honey. She can feed Ruby terms of endearment and leftover Easter candy and give her pats on the neck, but she must maintain her position of gentle authority. If Ruby balks during morning exercises or becomes petulant at feeding time, the keepers won't leave the enclosure until they can have the last word--until they can reassert their leadership position in the herd's hierarchy.
Meanwhile, every movement inside the exhibit has to be considered in relationship to Ruby's position. "Fear keeps you thinking," says Brown. "If I'm between 8,000 pounds and a brick wall, who's going to lose?"
"She decked me once," says George. "I forget who I was with or what I was doing. But I made a mistake and she reminded me. It wasn't out of meanness. It was, `I'm who I am, and you're who you are. See what I did to you?'
"She probably likes me. On the other hand, maybe it's unrequited love. Maybe she thinks I'm something sticky between her toes."
Ruby's creative outlet has proved to be an excellent bond-building activity, the kind of fun that might save a keeper's neck someday, if it hasn't already. The rapport that's been established between Ruby and her keepers will ease anticipated experimental events of the near future. GEORGE, THE KEEPERS and other zoo officials have been dabbling at a scientific analysis of Ruby's talents almost since the beginning. They currently are cooking up ways to accurately test Ruby's color perception. They are doing this because, pre-Ruby, it was generally understood that elephants were colorblind. But Ruby repeatedly has demonstrated a preference for a few colors, specifically red, blue and yellow. More intriguing still are stories of Ruby's painting from life: Several times she has incorporated colors in paintings that have been prominent in her surroundings. For example, fire-truck red and paramedic-uniform blue appeared in a painting after a city emergency crew responded to the collapse of a zoo patron outside the elephant enclosure. Also, Ruby repeatedly has taken color cues for paintings from clothes worn by visitors. Such episodes lead Ruby's pals to believe that she has quite an eye. "If they are coincidences--and I'm not saying they are or aren't--they are very startling coincidences," says George. "Ruby's behavior is purposeful. It's something she's doing, we suspect, to pass the time and enjoy herself.
"She's making choices."
Another benefit of Ruby's creative streak, and the resulting heightened relationship between Ruby and her keepers: Ruby is an "ideal candidate" for artificial insemination, Dick George says. Elephant breeding, surely no picnic even among consenting participants out in the wild, is extremely touchy in captivity. In fact, George says there has yet to be a confirmed successful attempt at it. Zoo elephants can live to be seventy years old. Ruby, who turns eighteen in July, is entering her most fertile years. The standard insemination procedure requires heavy sedation for the mother-to-be. Ruby, soothed by the presence of her trusted handlers, likely will not require much, if any, pharmaceutical foreplay, and thus get to skip the post-insemination trauma (mostly a lot of thrashing around as the dope wears off) that dooms many such attempts. Strange as it may seem, Ruby's painting may be a baby step toward maintaining a rapidly dwindling species. RUBY PAINTED for two years before the world knew anything about it. A lengthy debate occurred among zoo staffers before the decision was made to take the story public. "We never held a press conference," says George. "We certainly haven't tried to turn the zoo into a sweatshop for a painting elephant.
"I have to be very careful. We don't want to get intoxicated by this story. She's not going to learn word processing next week, and she's not yet had an offer to play the xylophone in Xavier Cugat's band."
Still, the low-key campaign has been a raging success. Painting chimps have been standard zoo-business publicity shtick for decades--even the Phoenix Zoo has tried that one--and several zoos have promoted their own painting elephants. Ruby has painted longer than any of her competitors, and there is the promise of true scientific benefit from her hobby, yet her story usually gets played as an oddity--a "bright" on the feature pages. To counter the tendency toward too-cute coverage, Dick George attempts to salt every far-flung interview with some hard news. The message rarely is received. Elephants are disappearing, George tells the reporters. Ivory poachers and rapidly shrinking habitats have decimated the species' numbers. There were millions of wild elephants on Earth at the turn of the century. There are thousands today. George also tells many interviewers that the decision to sell Ruby's paintings was made only after a visit to the zoo from Bill Thompson, a veteran wildlife photographer who knew too well the precarious world status of African and Asian elephants. When George expressed concern to Thompson that selling Ruby's paintings might be a breach of zoology ethics--"We're a zoo, not an art gallery," George remembers saying--Thompson reportedly flipped. "Ethics?" Thompson said. "Forget the ethics! Don't you realize that elephants are going to be extinct in the wild in another twenty years? Sell the damn paintings and turn the money into programs that benefit elephants!"
Thompson's real outburst was laced with expletives. "He had seen too damn many elephants out there in the wild with their faces chain-sawed off," George says. So far, Ruby's patrons have contributed about $100,000 to the Phoenix Zoo's Conservation Fund, designed to fund research and care for endangered species. When a newspaper or magazine calls from the other side of the world to get a photograph of Phoenix's painting elephant, George sends one of his pictures and a bill. Proceeds from those sales go into the conservation fund, too. "It's a scary responsibility, when you think about providing a place for an animal that may be a living anachronism, a living fossil," George says. "To me the poignant thing is, we are just knocking on the door of discovering how intelligent they actually are, at what may be the eleventh hour for the species."
As an example, George mentions the comparatively recent discovery of infrasound, a means of communication among elephants--at distances up to five miles--that is inaudible to humans. Says Tawny Carlson, who, as chief keeper of Ruby's creative flame spends several hours every day in the elephant exhibit: "Their ability to learn is limited by our ability to teach them."
IN MOMENTS of disappointment or sadness, office-bound grinds may retreat to a supply closet or a corner tavern. Zoo workers have the life-affirming presence of elephants. Dick George says he gets relief from outside-world sorrow by watching his No. 1 client lumber around her enclosure. He has no way of knowing for sure, but George believes that Ruby's life is richer because of her painting. He also believes that the zoo's huge elephants--and one elephant in particular--might be beings of incredible, so-far unfathomed, intellect. "Sometimes I come down and be with the elephants. I don't know if it's the right word--it's from the musical Fiddler on the Roof--the classic Yiddish expression, L'chaim. `To life.' I look at Ruby and think, `L'chaim.'"
"How did I ever wind up being a press agent for a painting elephant?" "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."
Visitors to Ruby's house say they can see her eyes widen when the keepers discuss painting.
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"I woke up and discovered that I no longer cared about the semicolon."
Ruby and her fellow elephants are a herd, and the keepers have established themselves as the dominant animals in the pack. "L'chaim. `To life.' I look at Ruby and think, `L'chaim.'"
"She's not going to learn word processing next week, and she's not yet had an offer to play the xylophone in Xavier Cugat's band."
"He had seen too damn many elephants out there in the wild with their faces chain-sawed off.