MassArt Students Create Toys Big Enough For Elephants

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Considering that there is no store called “Elephants-R-Us,” where can a zoo find toys for the biggest, smartest and most playful animals in their care? For the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, the answer has come from an unlikely place — the world of art.

The partnership was on display a few weeks ago when an army of tattooed, pierced and creative students from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design rolled out their one-of-a-kind, handmade educational toys for elephants: jumbo versions of a rainstick, popsicle, hackysack and more.

The students had been brainstorming and building for months, but the idea for the collaboration started two years ago when videographer Christen Goguen and I, Vicki Croke, first visited Ruth and Emily, the two Asian elephants at New Bedford’s tiny zoo.

In the course of writing a book about elephants in World War II, I’d learned a lot of elephant facts, but I wanted to get to know real elephants. Buttonwood Park Zoo’s director, Dr. William Langbauer, or Dr. Bill, as he is known, is one of the world’s leading elephant experts. And he introduced me to the elephants affectionately known as “the girls.”

Meet ‘The Girls’

“Emily and Ruth are two of the sweetest elephants I’ve ever met,” Langbauer said. “Both of these elephants are as placid and sweet as you can get.”

They also both have interesting stories. Ruth, 54, had been considered a “striker,” or a dangerous elephant, when she was rescued 26 years ago from a garbage dump in Danvers. Rehabilitating her was a challenge, but Bill Sampson, Buttonwood Park Zoo’s head keeper, was up to it — and he learned a few things along the way.

“Slowly, over time, I realized that I was getting a better response if I was just a little kinder,” Sampson told me. “They’re really emotionally sensitive animals, and if you’re in good with them and they like you, they’ll want to do anything for you.”

Emily, 49, is a little more remote. Langbauer describes her as an engineer.

“She’s very curious, but more about the environment than other animals,” Langbauer said. “She likes to take things apart.”

Emily nimbly uses the so-called “finger” at the end of her trunk to do many things, including unscrewing nuts and bolts on her enclosure. The keepers have to constantly take inventory of the hardware to see what she has been up to.

And Emily does something else that’s very curious: she drums. Using her trunk, she rhythmically thumps on anything that gives a resonant sound: doors, dumpsters and real drums.

Tipping the scales at about 8,000 pounds each, the girls can consume 200 pounds of food a day. They are eating machines, but more Veg-O-Matic than great white shark — they can fit whole watermelons in their mouths.

Even the way they drink is amazing. They pull water up into their trunks — about a gallon of it at a time — and then they firehose it into their mouths. It sounds just like a toilet flushing.

Habitat For Elephantkind

The Buttonwood elephants’ physical world isn’t very big and it’s not very exciting: a concrete barn, a sandy yard with a small stand of telephone poles with thatched lattice to provide shade, and a moat.

Buttonwood Park Zoo director Bill Langbauer (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

Buttonwood Park Zoo director Bill Langbauer (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

“One of our challenges is to give elephants the same sort of environment that they have in the wild,” Langbauer explained. He is currently negotiating with the city of New Bedford to gain more acreage for the girls. The amount of space he figures these elephants need is within reach.

“They don’t need thousands of acres,” he said, “they need enough room to be able to be together when they want to be together, and apart when they want to be apart.”

In the meantime, Ruth and Emily’s keepers are always trying to increase what they call “the psychological space.” A little over a year ago they told me they’d thought of the perfect elephant toy: a metal cube, like the foot stand they use to give the elephants pedicures.

This gave me an idea. I phoned Chuck Stigliano, then the head of the sculpture department at MassArt, with an unusual request.

“We referred to you as the elephant lady,” Stigliano said. “How often do you get a phone call where someone says, ‘Do you want to make toys for elephants?’ ”

That’s how the class “Toys for Elephants” was born in the MassArt curriculum — and it’s been a hit ever since.

“There are people lining up to take this class. It’s gotten a lot of attention at the school and everybody wants to know about it.” Stigliano said.

The First Day Of Class

MassArt professor Rick Brown (left) and this year's "Toys for Elephants" class (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

MassArt professor Rick Brown (left) and this year's "Toys for Elephants" class (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

At the start of the semester this year, just as the year before, the students came to the zoo to meet the elephants and get some advice from the staff. “Dr. Bill” Langbauer and “Keeper Bill” Sampson — referred to by the students as “The Bills” — told them many things about what the elephants like to play with and how the animals probably perceive their world. But their best advice was for the artists to follow their instincts.

“It’s really, really important to remember,” Langbauer said, “things that are important to them might be different than things that are important to you. So if you can try to get into the mind of an elephant, the easier, the better.”

Then Sampson interrupted: “The suggestion is, go for broke. Go ahead, let your imaginations run wild.”

The encounter with the elephants and the elephant experts had the students feeling energized.

“What does the elephant want to do? What can we do that the elephant will want to play with, that will help the elephant?” student Mike Aviagnos mused. “In this environment they’re being taken care of and this is a great place for them to be, and so if we have the opportunity to help make it better, why not?”

Ultimately, these young artists were charged with making toys that would be entertaining, safe and fun to break, if not indestructible. Over the semester, they gave it their best shot.

The Big Day

Head keeper Bill Sampson rolls the "pachysack." (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

Head keeper Bill Sampson rolls the "pachysack." (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

On a bright sunny morning, as students, professors, zoo staffers and reporters swarmed the elephant yard, the completed toys were toted in on a backhoe and everyone got to work.

First, the “pachysack” was rolled in — a pretzel of 17 tire treads bolted together.

Nearby, attached to the side fence on a pivot, was a rainstick built from steel tubing. It’s the right diameter to hold an orange or apple in each end, to entice the elephant.

“Spin it over and make it rain,” Aviagnos said. “There’s about ten seconds of nuts and bolts [inside.]”

Front and center in the elephant yard was an eight-sided wooden barrel with trunk-sized holes.

Alex Stoltze, Jaclyn Bonzagni and Holly Kelly atop the "octo-log." (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

Alex Stoltze, Jaclyn Bonzagni and Holly Kelly atop the "octo-log." (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

“The ‘octo-log’ is the premier pachyderm percussion,” in the view of Alex Stoltze, who helped design it. “It is an elephantine rattle, it can be used as a feeder. It is the wonder toy, in my humble opinion.”

After much welding and hammering, the “elephant spelling bee” was hung on the fence near the rainstick. It’s a chartreuse-colored metal box with the word “Elephant” cut out. There’s a bolt in the slot the letters make and food drops out as the elephants move it around, tracing each letter. Marta Szpilewska, who made it, was happy to see it up.

“It looks fantastic!” Szpilewska said. “I’m so happy with it!”

On the opposite side of the yard, a team went to work bolting a large, red steel box onto a log structure left over from last year’s toys. It’s called the “dial-a-snack.” When the two rotating discs inside the box are lined up properly, a trunk can reach in and snag food from the back chambers.

It took hours to make sure these toys were strongly secured — after all, Emily is nearly a safe cracker — but finally, to the relief of the elephants, keepers, spectators and students alike, the barn doors were opened and the elephants stepped out.

Emily (left) and Ruth with the "octo-log." (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

Emily (left) and Ruth with the "octo-log." (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

It was a slow-motion version of Christmas morning as Ruthie and Emily lumbered over to each toy. At first they stuck together. Emily took a good look at the “pachysack,” then Ruth did too. As Emily moved in on the “dial-a-snack,” Ruthie began to explore the other toys. Both girls took their time, pausing often to scoop up sand with their trunks to throw on their backs.

A giant snowball of frozen fruit from a student-made mold called the “icy munch-munch” was a big hit. Emily extracted almost every treat. The girls seemed to enjoy a longer-lasting toy too: Each elephant was able to toss the 300-pound “octo-log” like it was, well, like it was a toy.

Charmed Crowd, Proud Students

“We love the elephants, you know, we want to entertain them,” Alexis Decamp said, speaking for all her classmates. “It’s kind of like a privilege to be making these things for them.”

Zoo director Bill Langbauer was pleased too.

“I think it went awesome!” Langbauer said. “Our elephants are always trying to solve problems, and these toys give them another way to try to figure out the problems, but in ways that are less destructive but still enriching.”

Ruth visits head zoo keeper Bill Sampson. (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

Ruth visits head zoo keeper Bill Sampson. (Susan Hagner for WBUR)

And how about the elephants? The most telling moment this day was a quiet one, when Ruth left Emily and the toys behind to visit with head keeper Bill Sampson who was standing outside the fence, near the Elephant Spelling Bee.

“Hey, Ruthie, you’re not supposed to be coming to see me, you know that don’t you?” Sampson said quietly to her as he rubbed her trunk. She responded with elephantine sounds of contentment, a low rumble and a funny trumpeting call that sounds a little like a Bronx cheer. Sampson spoke back to her both in English — “You’re a good girl, Ruthie” — and in his own version of elephant talk.

Eavesdropping on this conversation between old friends reminded me of what’s really important for these captive elephants: the bonds they form.

The zoo staff reports that the Octo-Log seems to be the elephants’ favorite — they still play with it every day. But there will be more toys coming their way since MassArt plans to continue offering the class at least once a year.

Vicki Croke’s books include “The Lady And The Panda.” She is the former “Animal Beat” columnist for The Boston Globe.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • CarolynDonovan

    That is wonderful. The video is well worth watching. Elephants in New Bedford, who knew?

  • Clea Simon

    What a lovely story! Great video, too.

  • Rpascua

    Loved listening to the sounds and noises during the broadcast on my commute to work!

  • http://www.theelephantproject.org/ Miranda

    Did the February vote work out in favor of the zoo expansion in New Bedford? I hope they can either have more space or find sanctuary somewhere with the privacy and space they need to be healthy. As a fellow filmmaker and artist working on elephant issues, I hope we can use our storytelling power to move zoos and circuses into the past where they won’t need toys for enrichment because it will be all around them and ever-changing. http://naturestage.org/projects/the-elephant-projectfilm-series-and-curriculum/

  • Maraith

    The zoo director is wrong when he says that elephants don’t need much room.  Elephants in the wild walk an average of 50 miles per day and this is good for their feet.  In fact, it is required for healthy feet.  Of course, those elephants are on natural surfaces, not concrete beneath their feet.  Elepants in the wild stay in large family groups their whole lives.  In zoos, they take babies away from mothers within a few years and ship them elsewhere, leaving mother and child to mourn the loss.  Elephants in zoos behave in unnatural ways – bobbing their heads and swaying back and forth.  These are signs of deep depression.  Most zoo elephants die early and have serious health conditions that range from tuberculosis to debilitating arthritis.

    It is kind that Buttonwood is trying to enrich the lives of the elephants they keep in a tiny space there.  A kinder action would be retiring them to a sanctuary but that would mean caring more for the animals than for the zoo profits.  Not likely.

  • jefe68

    Great story, but why did the author have to use the words  “tattooed, pierced” to frame the students in this wonderful class. I was looking at the photos of the students and I did not see much in the way of evidence for this moniker.

    • Angus MacDonald

      “why did the author have to use the words  “tattooed, pierced” to frame the students?”

      My guess is that the author is over 40.

      Signed, Guy over 50

  • Cal777

    Wonderful article and I loved the challenging request to create toys for elephants.  Who would have thunked!  I loved the sounds of cooing from the elephant.

  • http://thosegraces.com/ Courtney

    This is such an inspiring story! Great for the students AND for the animals as well!

    • http://twitter.com/elephantlovers Elephant Lovers

      What you do not understand is that elephants cannot have healthy lives in small confining spaces, especially on hard surfaces, with months and months of inappropriate weather. Zoo elephants die young (@40) with foot infections, arthritis and osteomyelitis as the killers because they cannot move the miles a day they need. And it is not enrichments.  If only these young people had been more aware of what it is elephants need.

      • http://thosegraces.com/ Courtney

        I can totally see where you’re coming from and agree entirely, but the fact of the matter is that in the US you cannot just say, “Remove all elephants from zoos.” Also, it’s clear from the descriptions of what these animals went through (being found at a garbage dump in Danvers) that they may never be returned to the wild. What’s the alternative? <–asking seriously. 

        • Maraith

          The alternative is a US sanctuary for elephants where they finally are able to move freely and bond with a family of other formerly-captive elephants! See the Performing Arts Welfare Sanctuary in CA (PAWS) for how it’s done.

          • Maraith

            Sorry my error. It’s Performing Animal Welfare Society in CA.

          • http://thosegraces.com/ Courtney

            That is an inspirational place. In fairness to the Buttonwood Park Zoo, they are trying to get more space from the city. 

      • http://thosegraces.com/ Courtney

        Also, both elephants are well over 40–56 and 49. I think you are just posting this to be combative. I know you’re trying to provide education, but you’ve come to an NPR board to do it. Most people reading this article probably believe that these animals deserve more space, but it’s not always going to happen. 

  • http://twitter.com/EthologicAC Steve Smith

    The enrichment items are great. The free contact program of elephant management, where caregivers go in with the elephants, use bullhooks and domination are a thing of the past and is now mandated for extinction by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. All AZA accredited zoos must go to ‘protected contact’ in 2014 or risk losing their accreditation.
    I have done both, free contact and protected contact in zoos. It’s incredibly rewarding to work with elephants in protected contact, where they are able to do what they want. It can be challenging at times, but their intelligence seems to foster cooperation when it is most needed.

    It would be wonderful to see all elephants in captivity free of the type of control inflicted by free contact;  managed instead in ‘protected contact’ where a barrier always exists between the caregiver and the elephant, with strictly positive reinforcement is used to ‘ask’ elephants to do what is needed to keep them manageable and healthy, where elephants can choose to cooperate or choose to walk away, where elephants can be elephants.

    AZA has realized it’s time to step out of the elephant exhibit. It’s time to let elephants, who are wild animals, not domesticated, be elephants. The traditional means of elephant management, free contact programs, have lagged behind our knowledge of animal behavior, operant conditioning, elephant intelligence and animal welfare.  We humans can do better; after all, we are supposedly the more intelligent species. Work around elephants for awhile, and you begin to wonder about that. 

    • http://twitter.com/elephantlovers Elephant Lovers

      From what has gone on with trying to get the Toronto elephants out of the zoo and to a sanctuary (which was contracted by the city which owns the elephants), the AZA put up a huge fight about it with much mud-raking and even took away the zoos accreditation as revenge.  The AZA will open a National Elephant Center in FL to breed elephants since babies are huge money-makers at zoos.  I don’t believe the AZA is getting out of the elephant business for a minute.

  • http://twitter.com/elephantlovers Elephant Lovers

    These poor elephants cannot have healthy lives in a small confining space, especially on hard surfaces, with months and months of inappropriate freezing weather. Zoo elephants die young (@40) from foot infections the main killer (arthritis and osteomyelitis) because they cannot move the miles a day they need. It is not enrichments that they need, they need space.  If only these young people had been more aware of what it is elephants need, they could advocate for getting elephants out of the zoo and off to a sanctuary that has thousands of acres. Only when the public becomes educated as to the real needs of elephants, will the zoos change.  In the mean time, the zoo keepers continue to lie to all of us (ie  they don’t need space), and most of the public believes them because they cannot imagine that people caring for these wonderful animals would be so cruel as to hurt them. But confinement not only hurts, it kills.  The most important thing that can be done is to educate the media since they set the tone to either support the lies or burst them.  Bottom line is elephants don’t really live an elephant life in zoos, they wait to die in them with poor substitutes as cited above.

    • Infraredvision2

       um, these elephants are in their 50′s and don’t have foot infections or arthritis.

      • Maraith

        How do you know these elephants have
        no foot ailments? The zoo tell you that?

  • annetstone

    grateful. please make the stor even better mss art students,journalists, and bills of buttonwood.

  • Angus MacDonald

    “…rescued 26 years ago from a garbage dump in Danvers.”

    I’ve heard of junkyard dogs. Are junkyard elephants some kind of New England tradition?

  • Jennifer

    What a great story thank you!!!

  • Meri Bond

    How about pictures of the elephants interacting with these toys? It’s horrific that we imprison (that really is what we do) these highly intelligent and sensitive animals. Kudos to the zoo keeper and everyone involved for trying to make their long lives a bit more fulfilling.

  • joan halligan

    i fell in love with the girls.  a great but sad story.  vicki croke was so comfortable
    interacting with the elefants and her commentary was interesting and fun.  hope
    i will be getting more of the same, soon.

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