As relationships go, theirs has outlasted many marriages.
For 16 years, Ruby, a 42-year-old African elephant, and Gita, a 45-year-old Asian elephant, have shared barns, water pools and a decomposed granite yard at the Los Angeles Zoo, where they live with two other elephants.
Now, that chapter in their lives is ending. The zoo plans in the next few months to send Ruby to the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee, where she will join other African elephants and, keepers hope, become a model mother to younger female elephants.
Although the transfer is already scheduled, animal activists on Tuesday made one last plea to stop what they consider a cruel move that would wrench apart Ruby and Gita.
Critics ranging from students at Santa Monica’s New Roads School to national elephant experts all spoke against the transfer before the Los Angeles Zoo Commission. Their opposition is based on the fact that female elephants in the wild are deeply bonded and roam together in herds for decades.
“There is one luxury we can give these animals in captivity, and that is the companionship of a friend,” said Jane Garrison, who identified herself as an elephant specialist who lectures and writes about the animals. “Let these two old girls -- and that’s what they are -- live their lives together.”
L.A. Zoo officials contend that Gita and Ruby’s is more a rocky relationship than a blissful one.
“Though they get along well enough, I believe it is an arrangement of necessity, not a really deep bond,” said principal animal keeper Jeff Briscoe, who has worked at the zoo for 22 years and spends much of his time with the elephants.
The audience wasn’t buying that. “Isn’t there friction in every relationship?” asked student Amy White.
Ruby was once owned by Lion Country Safari in Orange County, where she had a calf. After the attraction closed, she was sold to Circus Vargas. Finally, in 1987, she was acquired by the L.A. Zoo.
“She’s had a hard life,” said activist Susan Carr. “She was in a circus. We can only imagine the horrors of that.”
The L.A. Zoo also “has a dismal record with moving elephants,” said Bill Dyer of the group In Defense of Animals. The zoo notoriously had two elephants -- Samson in the late 1980s and a Hannibal in the early ‘90s -- die while being transferred from the zoo. “Do we have to add another chapter? In Hannibal’s name, I ask you not to make this move,” Dyer said.
Carol Buckley, who runs an elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., said she was worried that Ruby was going to an environment with less freedom than she has here. Buckley said that when the temperature dips below 50 degrees, the Knoxville Zoo confines its elephants to their barn. In Los Angeles, the elephants can come and go between barn and yard all the time.
Her current keepers noted that Gita already has a good relationship with Tara, the zoo’s other African female.
Also, they stressed that African elephants and Asian elephants are different species. “They may not even speak to each other,” said Edward Maruska, the interim director of the L.A. Zoo.
Both Maruska and Briscoe talked passionately about why Ruby’s presence among her own species would benefit the breeding of African elephants -- which the Knoxville Zoo wants to pursue -- as well as her own well-being. Many zoos, including those in Knoxville and Los Angeles, are signatories to a Species Survival Plan, which looks for the best ways to breed animals in captivity. The plan inevitably means moving animals around. The L.A. Zoo intends to concentrate on Asian elephants and may breed them.
“If this were a perfect world, I would say all elephants should stay in the wild, but it’s not,” said Briscoe. “Ruby is a very social animal who tries to get along with everyone. I envision Ruby in a deep bond with an African elephant community. Is Knoxville a perfect place for elephants? No, it’s not. But L.A. is not a perfect place for elephants either. Knoxville can offer her a chance for real happiness and allow her to make a contribution that counts.”
Buckley agreed that species should have their own separate environments. “If she bonded with African elephants it will be a better situation -- but I’m not sure that’s what she will do,” she said. “There are only two African elephants there.”
In any case, the transfer will not be permanent. Ruby will be on a long-term loan to the Knoxville Zoo, and if she does not adjust, Maruska said, she will be brought back to Los Angeles.
Unlike Hannibal a decade ago, Ruby will not be drugged for the transfer, Briscoe said. She will be accompanied by an L.A. zookeeper, who will also stay with her for a while in Knoxville.