Circus Act

A recent list of America's 10 worst zoos for elephants had two Massachusetts entries. That's right—charges of animal mistreatment in the progressive hotbed of America. What's going on here?

Photograph by MSkowronek/Getty Images

Photograph by MSkowronek/Getty Images

The liberalism in this state, it has often been observed, seems to know no bounds. We look after not only our human brothers and sisters — universal healthcare and gay marriage being just the latest examples — but our animal ones, as well. For example, a bill currently working its way through Beacon Hill would require farms to give animals enough space to fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. And there are towns here, such as Quincy and Weymouth, that have banned circuses from using exotic animals like wildcats, giraffes, hippos, and rhinos — or, for that matter, elephants.

Which is why it came as such a shock earlier this year when a California organization called In Defense of Animals (IDA) placed not one, but two zoos in our state on its annual list of the “10 Worst Zoos for Elephants.” Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford placed third on the list, and Southwick Zoo in Mendon was tied for ninth. Both of them lie within 60 miles of Boston. In Massachusetts.


It’s dusk on a sweltering July evening at the Buttonwood zoo, and the scent of tiki torches occasionally wafts by a giant concrete barn that squats near a stretch of sand and a huge thatch-topped hut. The area, walled off by fencing atop more concrete, sits silent and bare under a glowing, reddish sky. The whole thing is designed to resemble an Indian logging camp. It feels more like a Japanese prison from World War II.

Inside the barn are Emily and Ruth, the two Asian elephants that live at Buttonwood. They’re the big stars of a gala the zoo is putting on tonight, a $100-per-ticket fundraiser. Right now, Buttonwood needs the money more than ever: The zoo is trying to fund a vast multimillion-dollar expansion that would include doubling the size of its elephant exhibit.

Buttonwood acquired Emily, now 47, from Southwick in 1968, and except for a 20-month stint in Baton Rouge in the mid-’80s, she has lived in New Bedford ever since. Ruth, 53, came to Buttonwood via a bizarre double rescue: She was among a group of abused animals that the federal Department of the Interior and the Animal Rescue League of Boston seized from a traveling menagerie in 1986. Somehow, those animals were then stolen soon afterward. The thieves abandoned Ruth in a trailer near a garbage dump in Danvers, and she sat among a heap of dead and nearly dead animals, unfed and covered with sores, until someone noticed her trunk poking out of the vehicle and called for help. Buttonwood’s keepers and vets have cared for Ruth ever since, nursing her back to health and helping her adapt to using her now partially paralyzed trunk.

Buttonwood, established in 1894, endured a seriously rundown stretch in the 1990s, but closed in 1996 for several years to complete a $10.5 million renovation. It reopened in 2000 with the theme “Berkshires to the Sea,” highlighting its focus on animals native to New England. Since then, it has successfully followed a path pursued by many American zoos over the past generation, transforming from a collection of amusements into an institution dedicated at least in part to education and conservation. Twenty-first-century visitors don’t want to just see otters sunning themselves; they want to send their kids to classes on backyard biodiversity and know their money is being spent to help save endangered species. So that’s what they get. Of the 2,400 or so zoos across the U.S., fewer than 10 percent meet enough veterinary, research, and safety standards to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Buttonwood, which draws about 200,000 visitors a year, is one of them.

The zoo’s elephant keepers, nearly all of whom are enthusiastic young women with college degrees in animal behavior, play with Emily and Ruth, challenging them with toys and puzzles and bringing them paint and brushes. The elephants’ medical records show the staffers tending to the animals’ various sores and abrasions, trimming their nails and cuticles, scrounging to replace a joint supplement when it goes on back order, recognizing that Emily loves a particular locally grown hay. This, in other words, hardly looks like the kind of place you’d expect to find in the number three spot on somebody’s worst zoos list.


Southwick Zoo’s inclusion on the In Defense of Animals list may be easier to understand. According to IDA, Southwick’s elephant — Dondi — “disco danced and gave rides until her death in July, likely from tuberculosis, raising serious questions about elephant health and public safety. [She was] kept in barren exhibits, cruelly isolated from other members of [her] species. It’s simply time to stop this inhumane and unsafe practice.”

“In Defense of Animals is a kind of crazy organization,” counters Betsey Brewer, co-owner of Southwick Zoo. “I don’t know why they would list us as a worst zoo for elephants. We don’t own elephants. We haven’t since the ’80s. We have leased elephants from other people before.” But that may be part of the problem: Southwick isn’t totally responsible for an elephant’s welfare. When the zoo brought in Dondi, they got her from Phil and Francine Schacht, a couple of old-time trapeze performers. The Asian elephant had a long history of performing at venues such as Flea World, a giant flea market in Sanford, Florida. She did two shows a day in Mendon, dancing to “I Like to Move It” (just like the animals in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa), standing on small stools while twirling rings with her trunk, and serving as the butt of slapstick jokes. She also contracted a tooth infection and lost her molars, making it hard for her to eat, and last June, she tested positive for tuberculosis. Dondi died on July 28, 2010; an autopsy showed she had pneumonia and massive lung damage. Southwick claims no wrongdoing, but the zoo didn’t bring any elephants back this year.

The Schachts treated Dondi like a member of the family. When she was with them, Dondi lived with two ponies named Toy and Peanut, and stayed in a barn equipped with a camera, so the Schachts could watch her from their trailer. When their son got married in 2008, Dondi not only carried the bride and groom into the ceremony, she also served as the flower girl. “We loved her as much as I’ve ever loved anyone,” Phil Schacht told the Milford Daily News when she died. (Schacht did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)