NEW BEDFORD – Kelly Carvalho grew up visiting Ruth and Emily, the beloved elephants at the Buttonwood Park Zoo, and she made sure her children kids did the same.
During a visit Thursday, as Carvalho’s son pushed himself up on the railing to get a better view, she watched his eyes widen with delight.
“They’re giant,” marveled Owen, 6.
For Carvalho and other zoo-goers who know the Asian elephants by name and grow sentimental when recalling childhood trips to see them, Ruth and Emily are beloved fixtures. Many cannot imagine the zoo without them. But as the elephants grow older, some say they should live out their remaining years in a sanctuary, far from the cramped confines of a city zoo.
“I want them to live before they die,” said Joyce Rowley, a leader in the effort to move the elephants from the zoo. “I want them to be able to rise with the sun and sleep under the stars. That’s what they deserve.”
But it appears the elephants are staying put, at least for now.
Advocates recently took their case to the City Council, which this week shelved a petition signed by more than 2,500 supporters to retire the elephants to a 2,700-acre Tennessee sanctuary.
“The best way to make sure we do what’s best for Ruth and Emily is to trust the decisions about their care to experienced professionals,” Mayor Jonathan Mitchell said in a statement Thursday.
Zoo director Keith Lovett said he believes Ruth and Emily are better off where they are. The elephants, which have spent most of their lives at the zoo, would struggle to adapt to a new setting and may be too frail to make the journey.
“There’s a lot of risk in transport,” he said. “And after all these years, they may not have the ability to integrate into a herd. These elephants are far more bonded to their keepers than they would be to other elephants.”
Lovett says the animals are well cared for and that specialists who have examined them say they are in good health for their age. Emily, who arrived at the zoo in the late 1960s, is 50. Ruth arrived in 1986 and at 55 is the fourth-oldest elephant in captivity in the United States.
Their long residence makes the idea of sending them away difficult to contemplate.
“They are probably New Bedford’s favorite citizens,” Lovett said. “They have been a part of the city for a long time.”
Last fall, the City Council approved $600,000 to triple the size of the current elephant exhibit, even though the zoo says it will not replace Ruth and Emily when they die.
But the current debate centers on whether the elephants should die at the zoo or elsewhere. City officials have chosen not to intervene.
“All their lives they have been on exhibit,” Rowley said. “They deserve better at the end, and we don’t have to keep them here when there are better places.”
Ruth suffered severe frostbite when she escaped from her barn on a bitterly cold night in January, pushing open a door that had been left unlocked. She was outside for nearly two hours before she was discovered, Lovett said.
“It was a terrible mistake,” he said. One of the zookeepers was fired, and another was suspended without pay.
But to some, the incident illustrates a need to relocate the elephants. Scott Blais, the chief executive of Global Sanctuary for Elephants and cofounder of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, said elephants of all ages adapt well to a more natural setting.
“In every single case, they have improved dramatically,” he said. “You are giving them space and giving them autonomy. You’re giving them a chance to live.”
At the zoo, most visitors said they thought the elephants seemed content.
“I think they should stay here, where they are happy,” said Janelle LaPointe, a mother of five from Rochester.
But others, like Carvalho, were torn. For herself, she wanted them to stay. But maybe that is not what Ruth and Emily would want.
“As a decent person, you wonder if they would be better off” somewhere else, she said.
Moments later, Emily lumbered down the hill to get some water, giving the children gathered at the fence a closer view. They squealed in delight.
“She came down just for you,” Carvalho told her son.