Lucy is an Asian elephant, a sentient being with complex physiological, emotional and social needs, many that the Valley Zoo and the City of Edmonton appear to ignore. To them, it seems Lucy is an important revenue–generating commodity with which they do not wish to part. Depending on the situation and time, the Zoo and the City issue contradictory statements, such as claiming Lucy is fine and healthy where she is, but so sick that any attempts to move her would jeopardize her life.
One fact is clear. Lucy suffers from numerous chronic ailments and diseases that seriously compromise her quality of life and the Zoo hasn’t been able to resolve them.
Lucy suffers from psychological distress, which probably began the moment she was torn from her family unit at around one year of age, and her subsequent placement in a human world away from everything “elephant”. Her isolation from members of her own species is almost assuredly a constant source of anguish.
Records and observations concur that Lucy also suffers from what elephant expert Joyce Poole refers to as “the ultimate source of captive elephant suffering…the overall lack of biologically relevant mental stimulation and physical activity.” Outwardly these are manifested as apathy and stereotypies: abnormal behavior patterns considered to be borne out of boredom, frustration and anxiety. Lucy’s rocking back and forth and standing still for long periods, which visitors can observe, are abnormal behaviors.
The City of Edmonton and the Valley Zoo claim that Lucy is “happy” and have even called her “a lucky girl”. Lucy’s health records however, paint a different story; one of decades of misery, distress and minimally controlled chronic pain. Beyond mental and emotional suffering, Lucy suffers physically from advanced chronic debilitating diseases, including obesity, arthritis in the joints of all four limbs, chronic draining abscesses, chronic respiratory disease, intermittent dental issues, and chronic intermittent foot infections to the point where her toenails have lifted off. The Zoo and the City gloss over these problems and fail to tell the public that Lucy’s ailments and diseases are attributable, in whole or in part, to her life in captivity, as such health conditions are not observed in free-ranging wild elephants.
Furthermore, The Zoo and the City fail to acknowledge that by keeping her at the Zoo, they are effectively reducing her expected lifespan by two to three decades.
The Zoo and City boast about Lucy’s veterinary care, but until 2008, the Zoo’s 300 animals representing 100 species, apparently received only a half-day visit from a local veterinarian. Their new full-time veterinarian had not been in clinical practice for approximately seven years prior to his appointment, and now seems to be learning zoo animal medicine on-the-job. In her entire 35 years in captivity, it appears that Lucy has had only a handful of physical examinations performed by an actual elephant specialist.
While the Zoo and the City claim Lucy is receiving all the veterinary care she needs, after seven years of suffering from a serious respiratory condition and enduring two endoscopic examinations under a sedation protocol that puts her at risk of respiratory arrest, the Zoo’s veterinary team has been unable to diagnose her condition. And the City and the Valley Zoo have turned down numerous offers made by elephant experts and veterinarians to examine Lucy free of charge. Why?
The Valley Zoo is an accredited member of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) and should be in compliance with the organization’s standards and guidelines, but they appear to be in direct violation of the CAZA requirement to “ make every effort to maintain elephants in social groupings (as) it is inappropriate to keep highly social female elephant’s singly long term.”
The Zoo and the City claim that Lucy is extremely bonded to her keepers, but Lucy has no choice in the matter. As highly social herd animals, elephants form intricate, complex and lifelong bonds with members of their own species. Human keepers spend time with her only intermittently and abandon her every evening, and simply cannot simulate the depth of these bonds. As well, humans cannot fully appreciate, nor can they hope to mimic the complexity of elephant communication systems, which include physical contact, body movements and postures, chemical cues, seismic vibrations transmitted through the earth, and a broad array of infrasound and audible vocalizations.
For half of her years Lucy has been kept in solitary confinement, considered by humans to be the most severe punishment for a social animal next to death. Even if as some erroneously suggest, Lucy’s human fostering would preclude developing healthy relationships with other elephants, Lucy deserves the opportunity to make that decision for herself.
Sanctuaries rarely run into situations where captive elephants do not make the adjustment to a social life. An elephant sanctuary offers Lucy a chance at an enriched life versus merely an existence at a zoo. She would find relief from her chronic ailments once under the auspices of elephant sanctuary experts, and with exposure to a terrain, climate, and level of exercise many times more suitable for an elephant. Lucy would also have the opportunity to enjoy constant companionship and the emotional healing which can only come from the nurturing of one’s own kind. Even if Lucy were to shun other elephants, she would still discover freedom, and learn what it feels like to roam idly over hills and through forests, to push down a tree, to browse for hours on natural vegetation and to submerge in a watering hole.
We have no right to imprison magnificent sentient, intelligent animals like Lucy, and inflict a lifetime of misery on her merely for our entertainment. And we cannot stand by while the City of Edmonton and the Valley Zoo continue to eschew established scientific fact while contradicting themselves at every turn, all at Lucy’s expense. It should be noted that finances are not a factor in this debate, as all expert veterinary examinations, transportation arrangements and lifetime sanctuary costs would come at no expense to the City of Edmonton.
Perhaps Lucy’s salvation will come through a court decision or a local political visionary who finally steps up to the plate, asks the hard questions and demands answers and action; but it’s more likely that Lucy’s salvation lies in the hands of everyday, ordinary Edmonton residents. If enough people speak out, Lucy will go. If not, she’ll spend the remainder of her life where she is.
And what does Lucy have to look forward to at the Zoo? More of the same routine, boring, and regimented life as a captive; more soul-crushing loneliness; and the constant unrelenting pain of her chronic diseases. And as payment for all of her misery, a premature death, which through Lucy’s eyes however, may be a welcome reprieve.
Lucy deserves the chance to feel what it’s like to truly be an elephant. Allowing Lucy to go to a sanctuary is the right thing to do, the unselfish thing to do. For Lucy and for our humanity, we need to let Lucy go.
Dr. Debi Zimmermann B.Sc.(Zoology), D.V.M.
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