Art students design toys for Buttonwood Park Zoo elephants
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For eight years, Handshouse Studio has worked to create stimulating toys for Emily and Ruth, two Asian elephants at the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford.
The founders of the studio, Rick and Laura Brown, are both teachers at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and decided to create the “Toys for Elephants” program to give their students a challenge in making stimulating toys for Emily and Ruth.
The goal of the project is to design and create toys and activities for the elephants that are durable and enhance the quality of their lives at the zoo.
“It’s an opportunity for students to have a design project that is a very real life issue,” Rick Brown said.
“Toys for Elephants” began when an animal rights activist contacted Rick Brown about having one or two students make toys for the two Buttonwood Park Zoo elephants.
According to Brown, Emily and Ruth were rescued from a failed menagerie in Asia and were abused in their youth.
“Buttonwood Zoo brought them in and they really had to socialize them and they really became two gentle giants,” Brown said. “I proposed this as a class instead of one or two students doing this. Why not do a real academic exercise?”
In the spring, the art students make the toys out of wood, tires and other materials. At the end of the semester, the class delivers them to Emily and Ruth at the zoo.
This year, the Norwell Fire Department donated old fire hoses for the class.
“It’s interesting what people find use in old hose,” Fire Chief Andrew Reardon said. “To create toys for elephants was certainly a first.”
Reardon said the department was delighted to give Handshouse the old hose to make toys for the elephants and that it was a unique opportunity to be a part of.
“It’s not every day you get to help build stuff for elephants,” Reardon said.
Once at the zoo, the students set up their inventions around the empty elephant enclosure and quickly leave so Emily and Ruth may come in to inspect and play with their new toys.
“The students have really embraced this and I think that they’re making a real contribution to the complex problem of keeping animals in captivity engaged,” he said.
A long-term goal of Handshouse Studio is to collaborate with other zoos, elephant menageries and art and design institutions around the world with the “Toys for Elephants” program.
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