It's a Jungle in There

The Phoenix Zoo spared no expense when it came to trying to save the life of Ruby the elephant -- or so it appeared.

Last fall, zoo officials determined that Ruby's unborn calf had died, and that her own life was in danger. She needed emergency surgery. Ruby, an Asian elephant, was the zoo's prized possession, a beloved Phoenix institution known worldwide for her prowess with a paintbrush.

Medical equipment was brought in by the truckload. Veterinary experts were flown in from all over the country: anesthesiologists from Colorado, surgeons from California, and Dr. Joe Foerner, the world's foremost authority on elephant Caesarean sections, who traveled from Illinois.

Dr. Laura Lodwick, the Phoenix Zoo's associate veterinarian, played gofer during the operation, which was performed in the elephant barn, with Ruby reclining on mattresses and inner tubes. Hundreds of surgical tools and other pieces of equipment were sterilized and waiting. Zoo staff watched anxiously on a closed-circuit television in an adjacent trailer.

It looked like a first-class setup. But when it came time for Foerner to don surgical gloves, Lodwick was horrified. The only gloves around were ancient and crumbling, donated to the zoo years ago and clearly unfit for use on any animal.

"Think of the plastic vinyl on a car exposed to the sun. Gloves do that, too. They turn yellow and then brown and then they fall apart," Lodwick says. She doubts the gloves were even sterile.

Lodwick, who had only been working at the zoo for about a month, had tried to order boxes of new gloves for the surgery. But her boss, senior veterinarian Dr. Kathy Orr, refused to spend the money, and while staff had begged a few new pairs from a medical supplier, they were nowhere to be found that day.

"I was standing there as he [Foerner] tried to put a pair on and they dissolved in his hand," Lodwick recalls. "And he swore and said, 'Why the hell do you have gloves like this? They should have been thrown out.' I apologized, but at that point I was appalled."

Foerner put on another pair of crumbling gloves. He opened the abdomen -- no small feat, since Ruby's uterus was the size of a Volkswagen Beetle -- and found the 320-pound dead calf. Lodwick was still fretting over the gloves, but, she remembers, "He said, 'It doesn't matter now.'"

There was a tear in Ruby's uterus and infection had spread. The elephant couldn't survive. She was euthanized that day.

Animal lovers mourned Ruby. There was a candlelight vigil and a service and a day of free admission to the zoo. An article in the daily paper announced that everything had been done that could have been done for the elephant and her baby. The city dried its tears and went about its business.

But fallout from Ruby's demise continues to this day.

The Phoenix Zoo lost more than its celebrity elephant -- it seems to have lost its way.

While the Valley has grown tremendously over the past decade, zoo attendance hasn't kept pace -- and now there's no baby elephant to draw more visitors. Employee morale is low. Zoo director Jeff Williamson is struggling to maintain control over his paid staff, and hundreds of volunteers have quit in the past few months. His critics say Williamson's weak management skills predate Ruby's death, but the tragedy has exacerbated existing problems. One zoo board member has resigned, disgusted with what he says is Williamson's inability to articulate a vision for the zoo.

Ruby's passing has helped fuel a debate about whether the Phoenix Zoo will move away from the exhibition of large exotic animals -- traditional big-ticket draws like giraffes, rhinos and elephants -- in favor of smaller, native species.

Finally, Ruby's death has plunged the facility into turmoil over the quality of veterinary care available to the thousands of creatures who inhabit the Phoenix Zoo. Even though a medical review committee approved the course of Ruby's treatment after the fact, tensions have run high between the elephant keepers and senior veterinarian Kathy Orr. After Ruby's death, one keeper began documenting alleged incidents of malpractice on Orr's part, and has filed a complaint with the zoo board and the state Veterinary Medical Examining Board.

Laura Lodwick, Orr's assistant, quit in February. She, too, has filed complaints with the zoo board and the state veterinary board, alleging that Orr contributed to the deaths of -- among others -- a snake, a rhino and a crane.

While she's confident that Ruby received the best care possible, Lodwick says it was incidents like the one involving the defective gloves that made her begin to question Orr's judgment. Why wouldn't the Phoenix Zoo spend a few bucks on surgical gloves to be used on an animal that had raised almost half a million dollars for the institution through the sale of her paintings?

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.