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Neutral experts' analysis would bring clarity to Lucy's plight (March 26, 2011)

posted 28 Mar 2011, 15:25 by Rob Laidlaw   [ updated 28 Mar 2011, 15:38 ]
Todd Babiak, Edmonton Journal
Lucy the elephant is one of the most famous animals in Canada, a magnet for money and celebrity attention. This week, former Price is Right host Bob Barker offered to give the City of Edmonton $100,000 in her name.

Oilers alumnus Georges Laraque offered the same amount in December. Steve-O of Jackass movie fame, a man who lights himself on fire for a living, talked about Lucy the elephant more than self-mutilation when he arrived in the city for a standup show earlier this month. William Shatner wrote a letter in 2009, and so did more than 30 of Canada's most distinguished writers, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.

The animal-protection organizations who have organized these pleas, campaigns, stunts and lawsuits misunderstand the heart of an Albertan. If you insist we do something, and you are from Toronto or Los Angeles, we will find a way not to do it and we will call you names on talk radio for sometimes two but usually three days.

That said, Barker's latest offer is not an arrogant out-of-towner's demand to immediately move the elephant. Barker wants to help the city afford a panel of elephant experts, chosen by ZooCheck Canada and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

The City of Edmonton cannot accept the man's money. It's sad enough that he's offering it, and the "chosen by" part of the equation carries a whiff of aggression. "The financial piece is not part of our decision-making process," said Rob Smyth, the city's branch manager responsible for the zoo.

So what is the decision-making process? Up until 2007, the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage had a beloved elephant named Maggie in a concrete enclosure. She was the zoo's star attraction; administrators and children loved her. But she was sick and getting sicker; elephants are designed to walk long distances every day, in warm climates. Animal-protection agencies demanded Maggie be moved south. The zoo and the city said no. She was receiving excellent care and she loved her human companions more than she could love any elephant; she was far too sick to be moved.

Finally, to end the debate responsibly and conclusively, the Alaska Zoo allowed Maggie to be assessed by 11 independent elephant experts. Ten of them said she was well enough to be moved to PAWS, a sanctuary in California. Agonizingly yet bravely, the zoo allowed Maggie to be transported to 30 hectares near Sacramento.

A year after Maggie was moved, the director of the Alaska Zoo visited her and determined she was "in elephant heaven." Statistically, an elephant in the wild can live 20 years longer than an elephant in a zoo.

They're intelligent animals who need companions. The parallels between Maggie and Lucy are obvious. There is only one way to end the defining debate of the Valley Zoo.

Not by packing Lucy up tomorrow and sending her to California or Tennessee, which those irksome celebrities have demanded up to now, but by following the Alaska Zoo model: 11 neutral and independent elephant experts.

We can, as Smyth says, afford it. The dissenting opinion in the case of Alaska's Maggie was an elephant expert named James Oosterhuis. He felt Maggie was too sick to be moved. Of all the elephant experts in the world, Oosterhuis, a zoo and circus consultant from California, is the expert the Valley Zoo has paid to determine whether Lucy is well enough to hop a trailer for open spaces and elephant companions.

Charitably, we might see this as a coincidence.

Even so, city councillors who are asked to make decisions on this matter are acting with imperfect scientific evidence. As we teach our children, science must be validated by peer review. Lucy is not Maggie, but the example of the Alaska Zoo demonstrates that the opinion of one elephant veterinarian is not sufficient. It displays a bizarre lack of curiosity and a hapless publicrelations strategy; it fuels theories from critics like ZooCheck Canada and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that the zoo and city administrators are somehow afraid of having independent veterinarians inspect Lucy.

In a letter to The Journal published Friday, Valley Zoo director Denise Prefontaine wrote that earlier this year Oosterhuis "concluded Lucy's medical condition precludes any thought of moving her and, in fact, it would be life-threatening to place her under that kind of stress. The City of Edmonton will not put Lucy at risk."

Frankly, the City of Edmonton has been putting Lucy at risk for years. Love them or hate them, this is what zoos do. Elephants do not thrive in small enclosures, without elephant companions. It shouldn't be "the thought of moving her" that ought to be precluded but the thought of moving her, or keeping her in Edmonton, without the full story of her physical and psychological health and welfare.

Ten of Oosterhuis's peers may agree with him about Lucy's condition. If so, the pledges of money and celebrity letters will cease. It will be, at that point, both unethical and criminal to move her. Until then, the city is relying on Albertans' wariness of outsiders telling us what to do -a feeble communications strategy.

With the opinion of a panel of neutral experts, the painful publicrelations battle ends. When the media ask city councillors for their forthright opinions on the matter, they will -for the first time -have scientific consensus to back them up.