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Ruby Is an Artist Whose Gigantic Talent Is Put to a Very Good Cause

July 18, 1991

Ruby has had several successful one-artist shows. People stand for hours to watch her work, and there is a two-year waiting list for her paintings. She has been featured in Smithsonian magazine and other publications. She weighs 8,700 pounds.

She is an elephant in the Phoenix Zoo, and the zoo communications manager Dick George told me her abstract paintings have made more than $50,000 for the zoo's endangered animal fund.

My longtime acquaintance, John Moffattt, q a businessman in Pasadena, has loved elephants since he was a boy, and when he heard about Ruby he went to Phoenix to meet her and ask if he might watch the 17-year-old artist from Thailand at work. He has four of Ruby's original paintings and four lithographs, with five more ordered.

Ruby went to the Phoenix Zoo in 1974, a 7-month-old baby from Thailand, where her mother worked in a logging camp.

It took her a long time to become the favorite of the white wine and pate set. During her first several years at the zoo, she spent her time alone in a small area and developed a nasty trick.

She would scatter grain in her 20-by-30 foot enclosure to lure ducks into range. Then she stomped them into eternity.

The problem was loneliness. She was the only elephant in the zoo, George said, and elephants are very clubby animals, sociable, supportive, deeply loyal to the herd.

When Ruby was about 5, Joanie Stinson went to work at the zoo and, according to George, asked if she might be Ruby's full-time companion.

Because they are so big, elephants are often treated roughly, with electric prods and other weapons. Stinson tried positive reinforcement with her new friend, praising her for good behavior and withholding the compliments when Ruby was being a stubborn, spoiled elephant.

Also, a donation to the zoo made possible the purchase of two more elephants and a new enclosure.

When it was time to move into the new area, Ruby, who had lived all those years in her pen, was terrified and refused to go through the open gate. Stinson enticed her with sweet feed, an elephant treat of oats laced with molasses. Each day, she moved the bucket of goodies closer to the gate and finally through it, and Ruby followed. In the new enclosure, Stinson spent the first five nights with Ruby to bolster the animal's confidence.

Stinson has since gone to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, George said. Ruby now has the two new elephants and four young adult people in her family. George said, "She knows me, but I am not a member of her herd."

One day, zoo employee Tawny Carlson noticed that Ruby liked to find a stick and make lines and designs in the dirt. That's when they decided to launch her into painting.

At least once a week, an elephant caretaker brings out an easel and a palette filled with acrylic paints. Another holds a box of water color brushes. Ruby indicates the color she wants with her trunk and then chooses a brush.

One of her helpers dips the brush in the paint Ruby has chosen. She does a painting in about 10 minutes and then steps back and looks at it. She then accepts a black marking pen and "signs" the painting.

The group of people keeps up quiet conversation and warm compliments all the time Ruby is painting.

George says Ruby is not the first elephant to paint but certainly the first to have such delicacy of execution and happy choices of color. Dr. Chris Murphy, an ophthalmologist formerly at UC Davis, has examined Ruby's eyes and is trying to determine if she can distinguish colors. She refuses the brush if it is not filled with the color she has selected. Ruby also knows left from right and clockwise from counterclockwise. So do I, but I don't have a painting on its way to a show in Houston.

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