NEW BEDFORD - Emily and Ruth, the great, gray madams of Buttonwood Park Zoo, have been one of the zoo’s most popular attractions for the past 39 years.


Emily and Ruth, the great, gray madams of Buttonwood Park Zoo, have been one of the zoo’s most popular attractions for the past 39 years.
Generations of families have visited Emily and Ruth, always confident that the graceful giants will be there to entertain, or at the very least allow visitors to watch them for a while.
And, they’ve held up their end of the bargain well, even now as they slide past their normal life expectancy.
"Most people are shocked to learn it’s the same elephant(s) they remember" from childhood, said Shara Crook-Martin, an administrative specialist and keeper at the zoo for the past 13 years.
Ruth, the smaller of the two elephants, is 49. Emily is 43 and has been with Buttonwood Park Zoo the longest, since 1968. She lived alone until Ruth came in 1987. Both were wild born, either in Asia or India.
Records are a bit sketchy, Martin said. "It’s a lot of guess work. I’m working on their history."
The life expectancy on elephants living in North American professionally managed zoos is 44.8 years according to the latest longevity and life expectancy study by Robert J. Wiese, director of Animal Collections at the Fort Worth Zoo, and Kevin Willis, Biological Programs director of the Minnesota Zoological Gardens. Ruth has already surpassed her life expectancy, and Emily isn’t far behind.
Neither elephant has any major health problems and could live a lot longer than predicted, according to Martin. Studies, done mainly on elephants who came to American zoos in the 1960s and ‘70s, won’t really be accurate until records are available for the second generation of zoo elephants.
Emily and Ruth don’t know a thing about any of that though. They have their own lives at Buttonwood, complete with likes, dislikes and routines.
They communicate with one another and with their keepers, who think of them as very large pets.
"They like interaction," Martin said.
Ruth and Emily play, float in their pool, and even paint by holding a brush with their trunks. In the evening, they go inside, where there are additional toys and fans overhead for their comfort. The area is heated in the winter.
"They like to play in the snow," Martin said. "Ruth is a goof ball."
They also have to be watched. An elephant sliding on ice or falling could be devastating. Emily is a little more careful. If it’s too cold outside, she stays in and will even close the door with her trunk.
"They can take cold temperatures, but not an icy wind," Martin said.
It seems they have no idea they are so large (Emily weighs 8,900 pounds and Ruth weighs 7,500 pounds) and when frightened or nervous, they seek comfort from each other and from their humans, whom they believe to be a part of their herd.
"Literally, you put your life in their hands when you’re this close," Martin said, as she pet Emily, who stood like a wall before her.
Emily, in return, flapped her ears and made a few squeaky noises to show her pleasure (they also purr) and playfully touched Martin with her trunk, the skin of which is rough and course to the touch.
An elephant’s skin, despite its feel and appearance, is very delicate. A skin or foot infection can be fatal to an elephant. That’s why they are washed every day. Ruth and Emily also get a foot check and even a manicure when needed.
When dealing with such a large animal, no matter how docile, it’s important to have a commanding presence and a lot of trust.
"And they’ve got to trust you," Martin said.
Two to three times per week, Ruth and Emily leave their exhibit prior to the zoo opening and are allowed to walk for a couple of hours with zoo keepers through the park.
They each know about 70 commands like sitting, lifting their feet, doing a headstand, stretching, opening their mouths, raising their trunk, and showing off their tusks.
These trained behaviors help zoo keepers get Ruth and Emily to exercise (both have some joint stiffness due to their age), and also assist them during routine checkups.
Massachusetts State Police play a role in their care. Two to three times a year, they bring a truck scale to the zoo to weight Ruth and Emily.
The city of New Bedford is also involved with the elephants. When trees and branches are cut down, they are donated to the zoo. Ruth and Emily enjoy eating the leaves, and some of the bark, especially from maple trees.
But, that’s just a small portion of their herbivorous diet. They eat about 75 to 125 pounds of hay each day, 15 pounds of produce and 12 pounds of supplement, and then additional produce and hay in the evenings. Despite what many believe, elephants do sleep laying down, but only for a couple of hours. They do most of their sleeping on their feet and sometimes leaning up against a sand pile.
During normal zoo hours, Emily and Ruth are in their one-acre exhibit ready to receive their visitors. They might be seen playing with a tire, log or large ball. "Everything for elephants has to be elephant sized," Martin said. They use a brush-like street sweeper donated by the city to scratch themselves. Ruth and Emily also like to wade in the pool, paint (abstract, of course), and often just stand around in the shade. They also like a good dust bath, either to stay cool or keep the bugs away. The sand also acts as a sunblock.
As for their intelligence level and memory, Martin said it’s true that elephants have an extraordinary memory, but it’s probably due to their amazing sense of smell, since scent is a strong component in recalling past events.
Whether they remember their pasts in the wild is anyone’s guess.
Emily was 4 when she came to Buttonwood as part of a program of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. She was part of a large group of elephants brought into the United States during that time. She spent two years in Baton Rouge, La. while her barn was built at Buttonwood.
Ruth’s past is a little unclear and a touch sad. Martin said she spent time in a traveling zoo and walked in parades, and was neglected. Ruth was eventually confiscated by the U.S. Department of the Interior after she was found abandoned in a trailer in Mendon.
"She was in tough shape," Martin said. "She was a nervous, scared animal."
Ruth was about 28 when she came to her new home at Buttonwood. She weighted a scant 5,000 pounds, and had sores on her body and feet.
People might think it’s impossible to abuse an elephant because of their size. But, Martin had a simple answer.
"Their psyche is on par with a 5-year-old child," she said. "And, I know, I have a 5-year-old."
That’s not to diminish their intelligence. Martin said Ruth and Emily do possess problem solving skills. "They think things through," she said.
Neither elephant has ever been bred, and Martin said it would be dangerous now in their advanced age.
"Emily’s never seen a male," Martin said. "And, Ruth. It’s doubtful. They have each other to hang out with."
They are part of the Species Survival Plan of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
"They are basically here for education," Martin said.
Buttonwood Park Zoo, on Sept. 23, will hold Elephant Appreciation Day and its first "Walk in the Footsteps of Giants" fund-raiser. Money raised will benefit elephant conservation efforts.
A one-mile walk will step-off at 12:30 p.m., followed by learning activities from 1 to 4 p.m. To register and for more information, call Buttonwood Park Zoo at 508-991-6178 or log on to