Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Elephant's Limbo: Edmonton's Lucy

On May 4th, a motion brought forward by the City of Edmonton to dismiss our court action on behalf of Lucy the elephant was heard. Edmonton’s lawyer argued, amongst other things, that Zoocheck and PETA don’t have the legal authority to bring forward an action to help Lucy. That’s the usual first response by corporations challenging legal actions initiated by animal or environmental organizations, especially when they want to avoid discussing the merits of the case (i.e., Lucy’s suffering). If the motion is defeated, then the case continues. If not, then we’ll be pursuing another course of action. The judge’s decision should be forthcoming in the very near future. In the meantime, it’s worth looking back at a few of the realities of Lucy’s past and current life at the Valley Zoo.

Lucy is just entering the early stages of middle age, so she could potentially live for a very long time. The oldest documented Asian elephant was Lin Wang who died at the age of 86 years. There are currently a small number of elephants in India that are believed to be their mid-90s. African elephants have shorter lifespans, but they still live a long time, with wild individuals living well into their 60s. In Kenya's Amboseli National Park, there are even females who have had calves in their late 50s. If Lucy is moved to more elephant-friendly conditions elsewhere, it’s possible she could have many potential years ahead of her. If she stays at the zoo, she’ll probably experience the same fate as the majority of other elephants in zoos – death in her late 30s or early 40s.

While the Valley Zoo states that Lucy is happy and healthy, there is nothing to support that contention. In fact, a number of the world's leading elephant experts., who have either observed Lucy directly and/or examined her management and medical records, all agree that she is grossly overweight, suffering from a range of chronic medical conditions, lacks the social environment she needs, is suffering and stands a good chance of dying prematurely. These are people who have spent their lives observing and working with elephants.

In looking at the keeping of elephants in captivity, it is critically important to consider normal elephant biology, behaviour, natural lifestyle, and best husbandry practices in other facilities around the world that keep elephants. Having done that it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which it would be acceptable for Lucy to stay at the Valley Zoo. While there are a multitude of challenges faced by any facility wanting to keep a tropical animal in a cold weather environment, there are three major obstacles the Valley Zoo would have to overcome in order to maintain Lucy in a way that satisfies her needs. As far as I can tell, these challenges are insurmountable.

The first is the climate. As an Asian elephant born in the wild in Sri Lanka, Lucy is not physically structured to cope with Edmonton's winter weather and that almost certainly aggravates some of her ongoing health issues (i.e., chronic arthritis) and psychological issues (i.e., stereotyping - rocking, swaying - because she spends exteneded periods inside during colder weather). While the zoo argues that Lucy is acclimated to her environment, there is no evidence to suggest that that is actually true.

A look at extinct cold weather elephant species (as well as other cold weather terristrial species, both past and present) show animals that are hair covered with thick subcutaneous fat layers, as well as a range of other adaptations that favour comfort and survivability in cold environments. In fact, there was a recent discovery of special blood components in mammoths that helped keep them warm. Lucy doesn't have any of those adaptations. Of course, that's to be expected since she was born in the wild in a tropical country.

Lucy can tolerate a certain amount of cold and can spend a limited amount of time outside during periods of cold weather. While this is probably better than permanent confinement indoors, it is certainly not ideal, especially when one considers the fact that elephants are typically active 18-20 hours per day, much of that time moving over very large areas. Except for providing a small heated indoor space, there is little the Valley Zoo can do to mitigate the effects of climate.

The second major challenge is that the Vally Zoo elephant paddock is too small (1/2 acre or less), in addition to being sparsely equipped and having substrate that is predominantly hard and unvegetated. While the Valley Zoo has the room to construct a decent sized elephant paddock, with required pasture areas, if they were to annex a number of the existing ungulate paddocks and amalgamate them into a single elephant compound, they do not have the finances (or, it seems, the desire) to do so. Reformatting the physical footprint of the zoo would require substantial funds and a major rethinking of the zoo plan. Having said that, if they did construct a large, properly equipped elephant paddock, they would still be faced with the problem of climate.

The third challenge is providing a proper social environment. The minimum recommended group size for captive elephants according to the Elephant Taxon Advisory Group (an organization comprised entirely of zoo elephant managers and keepers) is three elephants. The Coalition for Captive Elephant Wellbeing recommends a minimum of 5 Asian elephants be kept together. Every zoo association recommends that female elephants never be kept alone and that it is preferable to keep them in groups. The reason for these recommendations is that all female elephants live in stable family groups, usually consisting of 5 - 10 or more individuals, their entire lives in the wild. Elephant lives are built around these stable family groups, so it's imperative that elephants be kept in appropriate groups in captivity. The Valley Zoo has already said they do not have the space for additional elephants and that they will not be acquiring any additional elephants in the future.

The Valley Zoo acknowledges that female elephants are social, but they also say that Lucy's keepers are her family and that because that is all she has known (except for a brief period as an infant), she is better left where she is. If you examine the natural lives of elephants, that doesn't make sense.

Elephant families stay together 24 hrs a day, while Lucy's keepers go home at the end of the work day, leaving Lucy alone in the barn (although they now claim to have extended their hours with her marginally). Elephant families don't disband at night and then reassemble the next morning. Traditional mahouts in southeast Asia live, work and sleep beside their elephants in an attempt to satisfy their social needs. A number of the elephant orphanages have keepers that sleep in the same quarters as the elephants they care for. That doesn't happen at the Valley Zoo.

Elephants are active 18-20 hours each day. Physical and social activity does not stop at the end of the work day but continues late into the night. Neither of these critical facets of elephant life are addressed in Lucy's case. In addition, if you consider the fact that elephants communicate with each other through audible sounds, infrasound (that humans can't hear), body postures, touching, chemical cues and seismic vibrations nearly all of their waking hours, it's easy to see how inadequate Lucy's situation is. Even if the keepers wanted to address Lucy's social needs, they wouldn’t be able to do so. The suggestion that human keepers can fill the gap left by the absence of contact with other elephants is wishful thinking. Since the criticism of the zoo has become more intense, they've made an effort to spend more time with Lucy and to walk her more, but it isn't enough to properly address Lucy's needs.

Lucy's living conditions and management are almost certainly major factors in her poor health. According to the zoo's own records, Lucy has suffered for many years from arthritis (starting at a very early age), foot infections, abscesses, undiagnosed respiratory problems and colic. She is also grossly overweight. The zoo has not been able to resolve most of these problems. These are all conditions that have led to the death of other captive elephants in their late 30s and early 40s. There is every reason to believe that Lucy will suffer the same fate if she is left where she is. It's clear that Lucy's conditions are chronic and that her physical environment is an ongoing major factor in her poor health. If she were moved to better accommodation with room to roam, things to do and other elephants to socialize with, her mental state would be enhanced and her health would improve through exercise and normal movement. Regarding the zoo's claim that moving Lucy would be dangerous, there is no substantive evidence to suggest that that is true. In fact, considering the history of captive elephants like Lucy, the biggest risk is keeping her where she is in a compromised state of health. The best reason for moving Lucy is her chronic poor health, it is not a reason for keeping her where she is.

Zoocheck has offered to pay for a team of world-renowned elephant veterinarians (each member subject to the Valley Zoo's approval) to come to Edmonton to properly examine Lucy and her health. The Valley Zoo has refused, even though it wouldn't cost them a cent. I know if I had an elephant in chronic poor health with a long-term, undiagnosed condition, I'd jump at the offer.

The Valley Zoo staff and City of Edmonton have been close-minded and have refused to discuss viable options for Lucy right from the start. And their refusal to allow independent third party assessment of Lucy's health should be a red flag to anyone concerned about Lucy's health and welfare. Unfortunately, the zoo's close-mindedness has led to the current legal action.

I’m baffled as to why the Valley Zoo and the City of Edmonton are fighting so hard to retain one lone, sickly elephant in their small, moribund zoo. It takes nothing more than a review of a child’s book about elephants to see how inappropriate Lucy’s life and living conditions are. Perhaps they’ve defended themselves for so long, they feel they’d look stupid if they backed down and did the right thing. Perhaps it’s a misguided sense of civic pride. No matter what the reason, it’s Lucy that’s paying the price.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada