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Los Angeles Zoo's oldest elephant, leaves to spend retirement years in animal sanctuary

Ruby, the Los Angeles Zoo's oldest elephant, left for an animal sanctuary Tuesday to live out her retirement following years of lobbying by animal-rights activists.

The 46-year-old African elephant, who spent 20 years at the zoo, was loaded before dawn into the back of an air-conditioned truck bound for the Performing Animal Welfare Society Elephant Sanctuary in San Andreas, southeast of Sacramento.

She had been off-exhibit at the zoo and living alone since the death of a companion, Gita, a 48-year-old female Asian elephant, last June.

"Ruby put smiles on the faces of millions of people who visited the L.A. Zoo each and every year, and it is those memories that will allow us to continue to smile despite her absence at the L.A. Zoo," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement.

Ruby will live in the 75-acre (30.35-hectare) PAWS sanctuary in rolling hills with a herd of other female African pachyderms.

"While many older female elephants provide an important 'auntie' role to several North American herds, zoo staff felt that the herd at PAWS would be a good home for her," zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs said in a press release.

A zoo investigation found after Gita's death that the elephant's keepers did not begin emergency procedures for more than eight hours after she was first observed sitting with her back legs tucked under her, a sign of distress for the animals.

Animal rights activists, including television game show host Bob Barker, pressed zoo officials to retire Ruby to a sanctuary, saying the large animals do not have enough space at the zoo.

Barker pledged $300,000 (EURO 221,600) toward housing Ruby at PAWS.

Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals, said the group was happy that Ruby "finally will have a permanent, stable home."

Ruby arrived at the Los Angeles Zoo in 1987 after being obtained from Circus Vargas.

She was sent to the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee in 2003 to act as an "auntie" in a breeding program, but she never managed to fit in. The move outraged animal rights activists, who contended it endangered her health by separating her from Gita.

In 2004, then-Mayor James Hahn ordered the elephant returned to Los Angeles.

Ruby's departure Tuesday leaves the zoo with only one elephant, 21-year-old Billy, an Asian bull.

Billy will be the first to move into a $39 million (EURO28.8 million), six-acre (2.4-hectare) Asian elephant exhibit under construction that will allow the animals to roam more freely.

The new exhibit, called the Pachyderm Forest, is scheduled to open in late 2009.

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