NEW BEDFORD — An organization created to retire Buttonwood Park Zoo's two Asian elephants has filed a lawsuit against the City of New Bedford, seeking a judgement that the City can no longer possess them.

The Friends of Ruth & Emily, Inc. filed an Endangered Species Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston on September 21. On October 5, the City of New Bedford--owner of the Buttonwood Park Zoo--was served a summons to answer the complaint. The City has 21 days to respond.

"We ask that the court enjoins the zoo from continuing to possess Ruth and Emily, in violation of the Endangered Species Act," Joyce Rowley of the Friends of Ruth & Emily, Inc. told WBSM News.

Emily the Elephant. Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

The non-profit organization feels the Buttonwood Park Zoo has demonstrated six counts of violations against the ESA. Rowley said the zoo is "failing to provide adequate shelter, failing to provide adequate space, (and) failing to provide adequate social opportunities," among other charges.

"The lawsuit is intended to remove Ruth and Emily from an environment that is harmful to them, to one that is beneficial," Rowley said.

Although the suit does not specifically ask the zoo to transfer ownership, the Friends of Ruth & Emily have long sought to have the two relocated to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.

In August of 2016, when the Buttonwood Park Zoo announced its new master plan, it was decided that once Ruth and Emily pass away, the zoo would no longer house elephants. Ruth is about 60 years old and Emily is around 54, both having already outlived the average life expectancy of an Asian elephant, which is somewhere in the mid-40s. Their enclosure has been upgraded and expanded as part of the master plan, but will eventually house Indian rhinos.

Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

But Rowley contends those upgrades have actually made life at the zoo worse for the elephants.

"It's creating problems between the elephants, but it's also creating conditions for both elephants that we believe violate the Endangered Species Act in terms of shelter, access to water, access to food, some real basic necessity issues," Rowley said. "The new 8,000-square foot area looks good from the public's point of view, from the zoogoer's perspective it looks quite lovely, but the zoogoer only stays about a minute or two."

The elephant habitat. Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

Rowley contends that over the past two years, the zoo has closed the elephants off from the back part of their habitat in order to better display them to zoo visitors.

"There's very little shelter, there's no grass. They basically spend their time waiting to be fed. They don't have access to the water feature," he said. "The zookeepers have to hose them off. They've both been put on what's called a 'gentle diet,' because they don't have the space to roam, so therefore the zoo is trying to keep their weight down. So basically, they're deprived of food."

Emily the Elephant. Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

Rowley said the zoo may be giving the elephants adequate nutrition, but are denying them the abilty to graze.

"The elephants have been denied a very ancient and inate way of being," she said. "They are born to graze, and they can't graze where they can't roam."

Rowley said it's "that sort of deprivation that leads to aggression between the two elephants," which she said has mostly been by Emily against Ruth.

"It's been ongoing since 2006, when Emily bit six-and-a-half inches off Ruth's tail. Then on September 4th and September 6th (2017), Emily was witnessed going after Ruth, headbutting her, biting her, and trying to push her down," Rowley said. "Perhaps the most telling is that Ruth has another injury, this time on one of her back legs. We haven't gotten medical records on it, but it's visible. She's now limping on her back leg as well as her right front leg."

According to Rowley, Ruth suffered the front leg injury in 2014, and was denied NSAIDs for the pain from October 2016 to August 2017.

"That was supposed to be part of her treatment plan, but she didn't receive any," she said. "We're concerned that with this new leg injury, she's not receiving pain medications. As part of the federal lawsuit, we've asked for an independent non-zoo affiliated vet to examine both Ruth and Emily, and to ensure that Ruth is given the proper treatment."

Emily the Elephant. Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

Rowley said not only has the new enclosure exasperated problems between the elephants, she said it's also giving them worse living conditions when not outside.

"The barn was completed on September 2, and the barn now has bars. What was open space in the barn before, with just cables and posts, now has the elephants facing bars for about 16 hours a day," she said. "They spend all that time, and longer in the winter, standing, walking and sleeping in their own waste. We estimate that over the last 30 years at the zoo, they've spent about 20 of those years in the barn."

The elephant barn. Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

Zoo Director Keith Lovett declined to comment on the lawsuit to WBSM News. He did previously address some of Rowley's claims in an undated post on the Buttonwood Park Zoo website.