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MassArt students create toys for elephants at New Bedford zoo

Elephants at the Buttonwood Park Zoo receive new toys
Students from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design created new toys for the elephants at the Buttonwood Park Zoo. (Shelby Lum/Globe Staff)

NEW BEDFORD — The barn door in the elephant yard opened at the stroke of 10 a.m., revealing to Emily and Ruth, the Asian elephants who live there, five new toys built for them by art students in Boston.

There was the “box ‘n’ weave,” a feeding device constructed from old fire hose, stuffed with alfalfa cubes, and hung from a sugar maple tree. A tower of tires filled with hay sat near a tumble toy of wood, steel pipes, bungee cords, and horizontal chimes. There were two spheres of tire and yellow rope stuffed with hay. Forty wooden box chimes dangled from a net woven from fire hose and climbing rope.


The scene at Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford on Thursday drew comparisons to Christmas morning. The toymakers were Massachusetts College of Art and Design students enrolled in an elective called Toys for Elephants.

“It’s like Christmas in May,” said Shara Crook, the zoo’s assistant director.

As Emily, 54, and Ruth, 60, lumbered toward the toys, the students aimed their camera phones at the elephants and wondered how they would react to the creations.

“That’s wild,” said Christine Prendergast, 27, after Emily tugged on a “box ‘n’ weave” with her trunk, releasing the alfalfa cubes hidden inside the woven rectangle of fire hose.

Prendergast and Jenny Whipple, 20, both illustration students, made seven of the feeding devices with old fire hose from the Boylston Street firehouse in Boston.

Laura and Rick Brown have been teaching the MassArt course for eight years with assistance from the couple’s nonprofit, Handshouse Studio in Norwell. Students are graded on a pass-fail system, Rick Brown said.

“Everyone signs up saying this will be really fun. But then very quickly they realize this is a real serious issue,” he said. “They meet the elephants and they realize they’re designing for a real living creature. They fall in love with the elephants. They really want to help.”


Crook said the course is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country. The Browns said they had no previous experience designing for elephants, but they now receive inquiries from across the world and brought a group of students to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand four months ago to make toys.

The course was the byproduct of a different project. Newton author and journalist Vicki Constantine Croke said she was visiting Emily and Ruth while researching her 2014 book, “Elephant Company.” Their keepers told her they had an idea for an elephant toy: a metal cube similar to the stand used to give pedicures to Emily and Ruth.

Croke said she took the idea to Charles Stigliano, who teaches at MassArt. Toys for Elephants became a course.

“I like the opportunity and the challenge of working with students to design three-dimensional objects for a unique client should we say,” Laura Brown said.

The students collaborate with zoo staff to get design ideas and prepare prototypes. The toys must be durable because of their users. Emily weighs more than 8,200 pounds and measures 8 feet at the shoulder, Crook said. Ruth is smaller. She weighs more than 6,500 pounds and measures 7 feet at the shoulder. Her trunk is partially paralyzed — a condition the zoo discovered when it acquired Ruth.

She came to New Bedford in 1986 after being abandoned at dump in Danvers by a private owner who had purchased her during the late 1970s, according to the zoo’s website. Emily has been at the zoo since 1968 when she was purchased from Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon at the age of 4. Both have outlived the average life expectancy for elephants, which is mid-40s, Crook said.


The zoo, owned by the city of New Bedford, has said Ruth and Emily will be the last elephants to reside there and has taken steps to make their geriatric years comfortable. Last year, the zoo completed an expansion of the elephant habitat to meet accreditation standards, tripling its size to just under an acre and renovating the barn, records show.

Students watched the Buttonwood Zoo elephants in New Bedford. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Zoo officials said they encourage students to design toys that let Emily and Ruth focus on foraging for food, the activity that consumes most hours for elephants in the wild.

“You want to increase activity levels around foraging for food. You want to be able to mimic as much as possible how much they are foraging for food in captivity to what they would do in the wild,” Lovett said. “Sometimes you need novel ways of doing that.”

Since the course started, Lovett said MassArt students have become more adept at designing and building toys that were durable and presented Emily and Ruth with feeding situations similar to what wild elephants experience.

A favorite toy, Crook said, is an “OCTO-LOG” of heavy timbers and steel that dispenses food as the elephants roll it. One year, students created a steel xylophone for Emily, which she dismantled. Still, Crook said the musical instrument was a hit.


“It was a huge success and it was her favorite toy from that year, but it was not utilized in the way that they had thought it was going to be used,” Crook said.

The toys with food are always popular with Emily and Ruth, a trend that continued on Thursday. Each explored the spheres of tires and rope filled with hay. Ja’Hari Ortega, 20, and Jon Chevrette, 23, created the toy and called it “ball E ball.”

Chevrette, an industrial design student from Townsend, said most of his courses focus on creations people will use. He said he wanted a chance to design for an animal. The course, he said, also captured his mother’s imagination.

“I can tell her about any other project at school and she’ll still be like, ‘Well how’s the Toys for Elephants going? I wonder how the elephants are doing,’ ” he said.

Stacy Parker, 22, and Sohini Marjadi, 24, created “The Rainbow Bridge,” the 40 wooden chimes suspended from a net.

Watching Emily, Parker urged her to try her toy.

“Go play with the chime right behind you,” she said. “Yes! Yes! Yes! Please turn!”

Later that morning, Emily did just that, lifting her trunk skyward and clanging the chimes.

Emily enjoyed one of the new additions to her habitat. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.