NEW BEDFORD - At 12:49 on Friday afternoon, the large metal door finally opened and the students from the Massachusetts College of Art squealed. It was time.
Emily came out first, moving about as quickly as an elephant can move. Ruth was hot on her heels.
All morning, these two Asian elephants at the Buttonwood Park Zoo had been behind the metal door, knocking on it with their trunks, pacing back and forth inside, desperate to know what all the commotion was outside in their habitat.
And now they could see what all the fuss was about. There were all these new things in their home, all these funny objects, all these . . . toys!
“For them, this is Christmas morning,’’ said Dr. Bill Langbauer, the zoo’s director. He’s an elephant specialist, and he was just as excited as Emily and Ruth. This was going to change their lives.
To understand where these toys came from, flash back to a morning in March, inside a sculpture studio in the bowels of MassArt, where the students were trying to answer a question: What does an elephant toy look like?
That was the assignment for the class, which is just so fantastic that the students could hardly believe they were getting credit for it. Toys for elephants. That’s the name of the course, and the goal.
It’s quirky, sure, but as art-school classes go, this one is special, said Rick Brown, a sculptor who teaches the class with his wife, Laura. Not only were the students presented with a real-world problem - using their artistic skills to find ways to enrich the lives of elephants in captivity - but they could see if it worked.
This all started, this strange and ingenious collaboration between a Huntington Avenue art school and a South Coast zoo, through a bit of serendipity. There was an animal activist who was not too thrilled about elephants in captivity, Brown said, but she became interested in the work of Langbauer.
The activist happened to know someone at MassArt and broached the idea of getting the students to create toys for the elephants, “enrichment’’ activities, as they’re known in the zoo world. When Brown got wind of it, he thought it would make the perfect class, and he launched it last spring.
The curriculum worked like this: First, the students met the elephants: Emily, 48, who is more aggressive and matriarchal, and Ruth, who is 52 and sweeter and has a slightly disabled trunk. The students just loved Ruth. From there they met with the zookeepers, to learn about elephant behavior and the huge challenge of keeping those curious trunks engaged. Then they drafted designs, presented them to the zoo, got feedback, and wow - Langbauer still can’t believe what they came up with.
“They really got into the mind of an elephant,’’ he said. “I didn’t expect that. People tend to think about animals as big furry people. But they thought from the point of view of the elephant.’’
There was a 400-pound rattle Emily and Ruth could push around like a log, because they love noises. There was a roulette wheel that required them to line up the holes in two discs to get a treat inside.
And there was a bolt they could push through a pattern carved into sheet metal, because elephants love bolts (they know righty-tighty, lefty-loosey), and they’re constantly trying to take apart their enclosure. Cleverly, the pattern the students created was a series of letters, so they could trace out the word elephant.
‘People tend to think about animals as big furry people. But they thought from the point of view of the elephant.’Bob McDonald President, United Transportation Union Local 898
And then there were all these little toys, nuanced things, rugged things, toys for “a giant 4-year-old,’’ as one of the students put it.
And so, on that March morning, the sounds of hammers and power tools filled the halls of MassArt as they started building the toys. And that meant making them strong. Elephant strong. It’s no small challenge, which is why, as Emily made her way to the rattle on Friday, the students held their breath.
“We spent so much time talking about the destruction capability they have, but we’ve never gotten to see it,’’ said Mike Avagianos, a freshman, as Emily made her approach.
An elephant’s trunk is a remarkable appendage. It is capable of incredible feats of strength and constantly in search of activity, and it is attached to the largest animal to walk the earth. Last year, it had taken Emily and Ruth a mere 45 minutes to disable a series of bells that had been hung in the enclosure. They played so hard that the clappers inside unscrewed and fell right out.
But as the two elephants approached their new batch of toys Friday, it was with curiosity and not an eye to destroy. The zookeepers had told the students that when elephants see something new, they go right over to it. And they did. If the thing is engaging, the students were told, they will play with it for hours. If they become bored, they will try to eat it, or at least break it.
Yet as Emily ran her trunk gently over the giant rattle, sniffing, inspecting, destruction did not appear to be on her mind. She was engaged. And distracted, because there were so many new things. She moved to a block of ice - student Cailigh MacDonald had created an elephant-shaped mold and placed frozen fruit inside - and gently smashed open the snack.
A crowd of parents and small children were there to watch. This was a Friday of school vacation week, and everyone had been waiting for the elephants to come out. It turned into a vocal guessing game. Where would they go next? What would they break?
And then Ruth made for the “elephant spelling bee.’’ She has issues with the center of her trunk, from a bad situation long before she found a home at the Buttonwood Park Zoo, and she kind of slung her trunk up and grabbed the bolt for a brief second. It was enough for the students. They all smiled. They love Ruth.
As Ruth made her way to the roulette wheel, Sean Maze, a senior from Taunton, was watching closely. He had designed this toy especially for her, so she could turn the dials with her feet, and within a minute she started to figure it out. “I was so preoccupied with just getting it done, and now it’s nice to see this, to sit back and say, ‘Oh, that’s why we did this,’ ’’ Maze said.
For about an hour, the students watched the elephants inspect the toys, which included a bunch of cut-up tires tightly balled into a “pachy-sac,’’ but there was no destruction and no eating, just curiosity.
In the back, behind the wall of students, Rick Brown, professor, and Bill Langbauer, zoo director, could not contain their pride.
“So are we going to do it again next year?’’ Langbauer asked as he extended his hand.
“Absolutely,’’ Brown replied.Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.