L.A. Zoo is still undecided on elephant’s future

Times Staff Writer

Remember Ruby? The 45-year-old female African elephant has lived more than half her life at the Los Angeles Zoo. She just hasn’t been on exhibit for the last two years due to the logistics of moving elephants around to accommodate the slow, complicated process of constructing the new pachyderm exhibit.

But she was very much “the elephant in the room” Tuesday as zoo Commissioner Kimberly Marteau noted at the monthly meeting of the Los Angeles Zoo Commission.

At issue is whether Ruby will be transferred to another zoo, retired to a sanctuary or kept where she is. “I haven’t dismissed anything,” zoo Director John Lewis said in a brief interview before the meeting on zoo grounds, though he conceded it was “unlikely” that Ruby would remain in Los Angeles.


“We’re not being complacent,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to find her a herd.” Female elephants are highly social in the wild and bond with each other even in zoos.

Lewis told commissioners he was “still in discussions with several institutions” about Ruby’s future.

Later, nearly a dozen animal rights activists expressed exasperation over the slow pace of moving Ruby to the next phase of her life. They urged the commission -- an advisory body with no enforcement authority -- to support a move to a sanctuary and to lobby the mayor on behalf of that move. (The zoo is a city department.)

It has been five months since the zoo’s beloved female Asian elephant Gita suddenly went down in her off-exhibit enclosure and died hours later. Ruby, her neighbor, has lived a solitary existence ever since. The zoo’s other surviving elephant, an Asian bull named Billy, who is 21, has a separate exhibit and remains on public display.

“It’s torture for a female elephant to be kept alone,” animal rights activist Catherine Doyle said to the commission.

Doyle reminded the commission of Ruby’s somewhat tumultuous past: a life in Circus Vargas until 1987, a transfer to the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee in 2003 (opposed by activists who claimed it would break a longtime social bond between Ruby and Gita), her return a year later to Los Angeles after she could not be integrated into that herd, and, finally, the death of Gita this summer.


“This girl deserves a break,” Doyle said. “Do anything, but do it now. She’s been isolated far too long.”

Activists came bearing a 14-foot-long banner, a patchwork of multicolored cards bearing signatures of zoo visitors urging that Ruby be placed in a sanctuary. “We’ve collected thousands of signatures,” Bill Dyer, a regional director of In Defense of Animals, told the commission. “They want Ruby to be free. We want Ruby to be free. You want Ruby to be free. What’s the problem?”

Lewis said Tuesday he had not made up his mind.

“We’re looking at all the options. It just takes a lot of work,” Lewis said before the meeting. “My preference is to see her in a zoo. I think there is tremendous value in seeing these elephants in a zoo -- to see animals and appreciate them and appreciate the conservation value. “

In a sanctuary, he said, “she will be taken care of but the public value will be minimal.” Most sanctuaries are not regularly open to the public.

Lewis said he thought she could be valuable to a herd at another zoo. “Even if she is post-reproductive, she has social value.”

Activists also complained that Billy’s quarters are woefully inadequate and that he is frequently seen bobbing his head or swaying, which they say is evidence of stress or boredom.


“The only lesson to be learned from seeing Billy is how neurotic an animal can be,” activist Patty Shenker told the commission during public remarks.

The zoo’s new pachyderm exhibit is still more than a year from completion.

Lewis and his staff of longtime elephant keepers have always maintained that elephant management was not solely an issue of space; it also involves behavior enrichment, interaction with keepers and socialization.

Lewis said both of his elephants have all that. As for Ruby, Lewis said, “The staff are going out of their way to meet her social and behavioral needs.”

The sanctuary-versus-zoo debate has intensified as a handful of zoos around the country have chosen to retire elephants to sanctuaries. This fall, several Los Angeles Zoo commissioners traveled to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary outside Sacramento and were impressed by the 22-year-old facility, which includes 115 acres for eight elephants to roam and where they’re tended by a staff of nine keepers.

“I think at her age, at this point, Ruby maybe deserves to be retired,” Commission President Shelby Kaplan Sloan said. She added that she thought Billy should be transferred to a sanctuary temporarily until the new enclosure is completed here.

Pat Derby, a co-founder and co-director of PAWS, confirmed that the group would take Ruby if the zoo asked. (She estimates that it takes $50,000 to $60,000 a year to care for an elephant.) But Derby said settling a pachyderm into a sanctuary is no easy task.


“Elephants are extremely intelligent,” said Derby, who was a Hollywood animal trainer before she started her sanctuary two decades ago.

“Ruby made one disastrous trip to Knoxville.... She was sent to a place with strange people and strange elephants. That did not work out. Then she came back.

“I would definitely be willing to take her. But we certainly would have to carefully plan for it. It wouldn’t be, ‘Oh, throw her in a truck and ship her up here.’ ”