Lawsuit wants Buttonwood Zoo to retire elephants

Photo Courtesy: Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — A group of animal advocates in New Bedford are suing in federal court to force the Buttonwood Park Zoo to retire its Asian elephants, Ruth and Emily, and send them to a sanctuary.

The 25-page federal lawsuit, filed Sept. 20, charges that the zoo is violating the Endangered Species Act by keeping the elephants, where conditions include them being forced to stay locked in their barn at least 16 hours a day (longer if it’s cold outside) and failing to provide adequate veterinary care.

The advocacy group, Friends of Ruth and Emily, is led by New Bedford resident Joyce Rowley, according to the lawsuit. The group wants the elephants to be sent to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., which has much more space (2,700 acres) and added accommodations including veterinary staff.

The group notes in the lawsuit that the elephant exhibit at the zoo does not teach conservation or about endangered species.

On pages dedicated to Emily and Ruth on the zoo’s website, zoo officials said they’ve explored alternative homes for the elephants but were dissuaded because of the prospect of transporting the advanced-aged animals over long distances and integrating them into new social groups. Those, and other reasons, “led the zoo to decide to have Emily and Ruth live their lives out in New Bedford.”

Ruth is 59, and is the third oldest elephant at a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA); she has been at Buttonwood since 1986. Emily is 53 and the 12th oldest and has been at the zoo since 1968.

The zoo has said Ruth and Emily will be the last elephants hosted there. At the unveiling of a ten-year-plus master plan last year, the zoo said plans are in the works for more education about endangered species.

Director of Buttonwood Park Zoo Keith Lovett said the zoo takes pride in the care and safety of its animals.

“In response to similar complaints by the same complainant in 2015, the zoo had a panel of experts perform an independent review of its Asian elephant program,” he said.

Lovett said the panel found that the elephant staff is stable, experienced and fully supported by zoo leadership.

“We have been and remain committed to providing the highest quality of care to our elephants,” he said.