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A last L.A. Zoo photo op for the retiring Ruby

The African elephant, headed soon for life at a sanctuary, enjoys a meet- and-greet with a herd of local dignitaries. Too bad the carrots ran out.

March 13, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

As if on cue, Ruby, the Los Angeles Zoo's 9,000-pound female African elephant, ambled out of her barn Monday, nudging a ball with her trunk. She made her way across a dirt yard in an off-exhibit area toward the iron-barred fence that separated her from a platoon of officials including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who hailed her as "one of the city of Los Angeles' true greats."

If it was a rare moment for the zoo -- a city department -- to be announcing that it would retire one of its few elephants to a sanctuary, it was just as rare a moment for Ruby to be viewing such a large gathering. Because of the complications of extensive construction, Ruby hasn't been on exhibit in nearly 2 1/2 years. And she has been solitary since the zoo's other female elephant, Gita, died last summer.

Ruby, 46, eyed her visitors and curled her trunk over the bars.

This was as close to a crowd as she had seen in a while. And it may have been her last semipublic appearance here. At the moment, the zoo has no plans -- and no easy logistical way -- to put her on exhibit before she goes to the sanctuary.

"Today after 20 years of living here and over 25,000 pounds of peanuts, we finally say goodbye," Villaraigosa said. He waxed like a poetic travel agent about the amenities of her new 75-acre home at the Performing Animal Welfare Society's San Andreas elephant sanctuary: a "habitat covered in native California grasses, shrubs and huge oak trees providing year-round grazing."

Ruby will be trucked to the sanctuary "as soon as possible," said zoo Director John Lewis. Keepers will accompany her and stay as she gets acclimated.

"Obviously, it's a sad day because we're saying goodbye to a longtime friend, Ruby," he said.

"But it's also a happy day because we've found some people in Pat Derby and Ed Stewart of the PAWS sanctuary who can continue to provide for Ruby with good care." Derby and Stewart are the directors of PAWS.

Lewis said he had looked into other zoo options for Ruby but with so many zoos renovating their elephant facilities, "it really made it difficult to find a place. They're all trying to manage their existing herds."

Lewis noted that the L.A. Zoo would now be concentrating on building its new exhibit, which will be devoted to Asian elephants -- only 35,000 of which are left in the wild. The zoo's only remaining elephant is an Asian bull named Billy, but it plans to acquire more Asians for the exhibit, eventually becoming a substantial keeper and possibly breeder of the species.

So ends the saga of Ruby, a former Circus Vargas performer who came to the L.A. Zoo in 1987, was sent to the Knoxville Zoo for 1 1/2 years and returned to Los Angeles in 2004.

Over the years she has captured the attention of animal rights activists, who have lobbied for her to be sent to a sanctuary and even raised $260,000 for her care. Half of that was from TV game show host Bob Barker, who matched $130,000 in other private donations, dollar for dollar.

Lewis praised Barker's philanthropy. Those funds will go directly to the sanctuary, and the city will pay Ruby's $20,000 transportation fee.

Catherine Doyle, an activist who headed the private fundraising, said Monday, "I think it removed any financial barrier the zoo or the city could claim they had in moving Ruby."

A handful of activists -- including Doyle -- who showed up at the zoo were not allowed into the news conference, held in an area not open to the public.

"I can tell you that the decision to retire Ruby was not generated from the pressure," said Villaraigosa, who has in the past responded to activists' complaints.

"Look, there's a debate going on across the nation. I've said very clearly that elephants should be in sanctuaries and not in zoos. But what we've done here is create a balance," Villaraigosa said, calling the planned Asian elephant exhibit "among the finest in the nation."

As he talked, Ruby munched her way through an acacia bush, thrashing the browse about, stirring up dirt.

Politicians, including the mayor, City Councilmen Tom LaBonge and Bill Rosendahl, and state Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) -- who has a bill before the Legislature mandating conditions for elephants -- were handed carrots to offer Ruby, a perfect photo op for them and feeding op for the pachyderm.

Ruby, wanting more, unreeled her trunk toward the now empty-handed visitors.

"Sorry, that's it," Levine apologized.

carla.hall@latimes.com

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