Lucy is an Asian elephant currently residing in Edmonton’s Valley Zoo. She is nearly 40 years old.
Recently, an animal rights organization, In Defense Of Animals named Edmonton Valley Zoo as their “Hall of Shame Winner,” and provided a dire warning:“Cruel, cold, captive conditions result in elephants rarely reaching their 40’s in Canada; this may be Lucy’s last year if they don’t act now.”
Edmonton has been added each year since 2010 to the list of the 10 Worst Zoos For Elephants, with the 2014 addition marking its fifth year in a row.
Lucy (aka Skanik) was born in Sri Lanka and orphaned as a calf, and after a stay at the Sri Lanka National Zoological Gardens, she was shipped to her current home in Edmonton in 1977. There are currently four zoos remaining in Canada that house elephants. Of those, Lucy is the northernmost elephant in Canada.
Since 2007, when Alaska’s only elephant, Maggie, was moved to the P.A.W.S. (Performing Animal Welfare Society) Sanctuary in California, Lucy has been the northernmost elephant residing in all of North America. Temperatures in Edmonton during the winter average around -20 Celsius or -4 Fahrenheit, but can dip as low as -46 Celcius or -50.8 Fahrenheit.
Of the nearly 38 years spent in Edmonton, Lucy spent 18 of them with an African elephant named Samantha, who was later shipped to North Carolina Zoo. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Guidelines, African and Asian elephants should not be housed together due to “multiple species differences and possible disease transmissions.” It was generally observed that Lucy and Samantha did not form a bond and weren’t happy living together.
Since Samantha’s departure in 2007, Lucy has been alone.
Efforts by many significant animal rights organizations to have Lucy released to a sanctuary have thus far been unsuccessful.
A declaration of notice was filed by Tove Reece (president of Voice for Animals Humane Society), Zoocheck Canada and PETA in 2010 stating that the City of Edmonton was in violation of provincial zoo standards. It was appealed to Alberta’s Supreme Court where two of the three justices decided against it. In 2012, it was then appealed to Canada’s Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. No reason was provided.
Essentially, advocates believe the Government of Alberta has failed to enforce Alberta’s own animal welfare laws—with the City of Edmonton in apparent violation of meeting conditions necessary to carry a permit to operate a zoo—but the Alberta Court of Queen’s bench ruled that only the Attorney General can challenge the Alberta Government in its failure to enforce its own laws.
Justice Fraser of Alberta’s Supreme Court who disagreed with the majority position, stated:
“Viewed through the animal welfare lens, this appeal raises important issues fundamental to the effective protection of animals in this province. Under what circumstances can citizens or advocacy groups be granted public interest standing to seek a declaratory judgment that the government itself has failed to comply with animal welfare laws? … Is the government, and that includes the City as an arm of the state, immunized from judicial scrutiny of alleged unlawful acts?”
Elephants are considered one of the world’s most intelligent species of land animals, with their brains having the most mass at just over five kilograms. According to Wikipedia regarding elephant cognition, “Elephants exhibit a wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and language.”
Female elephants typically spend their lives in tight-knit groups. Zoo associations across the globe recommend that elephants in captivity be kept together in groups of three or more, and some recommend a minimum of five.
Alberta’s animal welfare standards include:
>>> all animals be maintained in numbers sufficient to meet their social and behavioural needs;
>>> zoo enclosures must meet the animal’s physical and social needs and encourage species-typical movements and behaviours;
>>> female elephants should not be kept alone and should ideally be kept with at least two other female elephants; and
>>> zoos must provide an opportunity for each elephant to exercise and interact socially with other elephants.
One only needs to observe Lucy’s current environment to see that these standards are not being met.
During Alberta’s winter months, Lucy is walked only when temperatures are above -15 degrees Celsius. After pressure from the Edmonton Humane Society, an 80 x 50 enclosure was built 100 feet from Lucy’s indoor quarters so that she could enjoy exercise year round. Many argue this is a dismal substitute for the kind of environment Lucy would enjoy in a sanctuary in warmer climates—Lucy is still required to walk outdoors in cold temperatures to access the enclosure.
Lucy suffers from a number of health conditions. The City of Edmonton’s website states that Lucy is content and comfortable in her current home, but her health issues prevent her from being relocated. The statements seem contradictory—she is healthy, yet sick, according to their website.
Edmonton Valley Zoo’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Milton Ness, passed away in May of 2014. Although Dr. Ness had no experience with elephants when he came to Valley Zoo, he left behind what many would call a legacy of misinformation about Lucy and her needs.
Dr. Ness, in agreement with Dr. James Oosterhuis, an expert paid to consult on Lucy’s care, stated that Lucy’s breathing problem prevented her from ever being moved. He further claimed that Lucy is not a social elephant and has bonded with the people who care for her.
Dr. Oosterhuis also advised on Maggie’s care, the elephant from Alaska, who is now thriving at P.A.W.S. Sanctuary. Alaska Zoo consulted 10 outside experts regarding Maggie’s health conditions and her possible move to a sanctuary, nine of which agreed she should be moved. Despite that, the zoo chose to stick with Dr. Oosterhuis’ recommendations for keeping Maggie in Alaska, with no improvement in her condition.
After Maggie collapsed due to colic, and thanks to significant public pressure, the elephant was finally moved to the sanctuary.
Alaska’s zoo director, Patrick Lampi, stated in an interview with Vueweekly regarding Maggie’s situation:
“I don’t know if Maggie would still be with us today. She’s put on all this muscle from climbing up and down the rolling hills and browsing in trees and swimming in their little lake. It’s just a great environment for elephants. You see that and I don’t know if there’s anybody who would say that it was the wrong decision now.”
The last available report on Lucy’s health by Dr. Oosterhuis in February of 2013 describes Lucy’s undiagnosed respiratory issue, where she breathes through her mouth when stressed or when exercising, which is not normal for elephants and indicates difficulty getting enough oxygen.
His documented treatment plan includes “continue to treat this as a medical problem for now.”
Zoos are notoriously bad environments for elephants and across North America, they have been closing their elephant exhibits one after the other, with good reason.
Watoto, a 45-year-old elephant at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo passed away in August, 2014. Her necropsy revealed no evidence of disease or infection. Dr. Darin Collins, the zoo’s Director of Animal health stated:
“We don’t know if Watoto fell or lay down. My clinical assessment is that she was unable to stand back up, due to the joint disease. Unfortunately, the sequence of events that occurs when an elephant is down and unable to stand becomes life-threatening in less than a few hours’ time.”
Captive elephants standing on concrete much of the time are prime candidates for debilitating arthritis. Lucy also currently suffers from arthritis.
Julie Woodyer of Zoocheck Canada, a national animal protection charity that successfully campaigned to have Toronto’s three elephants moved to P.A.W.S. in 2013 has also been a strong voice for Lucy’s release.
She received updated information about who oversees Lucy’s health.“It would appear that the zoo went back to using Ottewell Vet Hospital (which they used prior to hiring Milton Ness); the vet associated with the zoo from that clinic is Terri Pettifor. Additionally, they list Marie-Josee Limoges as a vet of record as well, but she is likely just in an advisory capacity as she works for Granby Zoo in Quebec.”
Surendra Varma, a world-renowned elephant expert with a Masters degree in Wildlife Biology, focuses his work on the conservation of elephants. He was invited by Zoocheck to examine the welfare status of Lucy and completed a detailed report.
Included in his recommendations, Varma states, “All of her current problems, both ecological and medical, can be solved if she is shifted to a location which provides her with the necessary space, stimulus to use the space, the potential to create an unfragmented exercise regime, scope for socialization with other elephants (positively/negatively), and suitable weather conditions.”
He notes that Lucy exhibits stereotypic behavior, stepping and swaying, which occurs when elephants “suffer from loneliness, boredom, lack of activity, constant harsh handling and trauma.” Also contained within his report: “Lucy is maintained for display purposes.”
Lucy, an intelligent, social and tropical animal lives alone in sub-zero temperatures for “display purposes.”
Let that sink in.
Recently, I was put in contact with Varma who advised he was still willing to offer support with regard to Lucy. He says,“Many small but beautiful changes for both captive and wild elephants happen across Asia—but I fail to understand why that is not possible for Lucy?”
Considering Edmonton’s cold winters, advocates in the Save Lucy the Elephant group pooled together $300 in donations to have a coat specially made for Lucy.
Sanctuaries in India and Thailand use similar coats to keep their elephants warm (though the temperatures there are undoubtedly warmer than here in Canada) and the group plans to present the gift this year. It is apparent that there are many concerned and caring individuals and groups who only want the best possible outcome for Lucy, even if that means creating clothing for an elephant who lives in a cold climate.
Though this kind offer of a coat would provide some additional warmth and comfort for Lucy, it doesn’t solve Lucy’s situation.
Standing offers still exist to pay all expenses related to Lucy’s relocation to a sanctuary.
Notably, Bob Barker visited Edmonton in 2009 and offered $100,000 to pay for an independent panel of experts to assess Lucy’s health. The City of Edmonton declined the offer. In a 2011 interview with The Star regarding Lucy’s captivity, Barker was asked why he thought zoos resisted his message, and he responded, “Basically money. All animal exploitation and mistreatment—if you inquire deeply enough, it gets down to greed.”
Other experts who have advocated for Lucy’s release to a suitable environment include renowned elephant biologist Dr. Joyce Poole, P.A.W.S. Sanctuary co-founder Ed Stewart and Dr. Winnie Kiiru, founder of Conservation Kenya, who has worked with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and is a delegate at the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This is just a small sample of those who have offered expert opinions on Lucy’s care.
Those concerned for Lucy’s well-being are certainly not advocating for her relocation at the cost of her life. That just doesn’t make any sense. Nobody wants Lucy to die.
However, the lack of transparency provided by Valley Zoo and the City of Edmonton raises questions of morality and ethics. It is unclear why they will not allow a team of world-renowned and unbiased elephant experts to formally examine Lucy, considering the main concern about moving Lucy is her health.
If these experts could advise on a treatment plan that would allow Lucy enough recovery to travel, wouldn’t that be in Lucy’s best interest? So, what’s the hold up?
Concerned citizens of Edmonton who side with the zoo, largely due to Dr. Ness’ unqualified opinion on Lucy’s needs, feel that her move to a Sanctuary would cause her death, and thus, there is little public outcry regarding Lucy’s blatant neglect.
I wonder if the knowledge that not everything is being done for Lucy’s well-being—for unknown reasons, though one can speculate that Lucy being the Valley Zoo’s star attraction certainly plays a large part—would cause a change of heart for many.
If the zoo and the City of Edmonton believe Lucy’s condition is not treatable and that she shouldn’t be moved, wouldn’t allowing a free assessment confirming their fears be to their advantage? If a group of independent, neutral experts agreed that moving Lucy would not be in her best interest, I would personally no longer advocate for her to be relocated.
At this point, that’s what advocates and activists want: allow an assessment of Lucy, with no monetary cost to the city or the zoo. Why is that such a problem?
I personally contacted Don Iveson, Edmonton’s current mayor, about this issue on numerous occasions and received no response. All other attempts to begin a discussion with the city’s leader by individuals and organizations have also been stonewalled.
So, what can we do?
A phrase we’ve all heard, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” would apply well here. We need to educate ourselves, and then we must trumpet loudly (but mindfully, and with peace) on behalf of Lucy. As in other successful campaigns to relocate captive elephants to suitable locations, intense public pressure is a necessary ingredient.
The bottom line is that Lucy needs more allies.
Shouldn’t she be diagnosed, treated and then allowed to enjoy her remaining years in a more comfortable environment, socializing with other elephants? Despite a typical lifespan of 50 to 70 years in the wild, this may be Lucy’s last year and so far, it’s safe to say she is not happy or healthy where she currently resides.
Savelucy.ca provides information on how to take action. Watch An Apology To Elephants online. And finally, raise your trunks for Lucy by sharing and educating those you know about Lucy’s sad situation.
The more trunks held up for Lucy, the more likely she is to break free from Edmonton Valley Zoo’s deathly grip.
Watch this video about the successful trek Toronto Zoo’s elephants made to P.A.W.S.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Catherine Monkman