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We might love lucy but time has come to let her go (March 10, 2009)

posted 26 Aug 2010, 10:21 by Bhavithra Aloysious   [ updated 26 Aug 2010, 10:28 ]


by: Todd Babiak, Edmonton Journal

Puzzling why Valley Zoo won't let impartial panel of experts determine whether elephant belongs in sanctuary to south

Lucy the elephant has a tooth problem. It is only the latest in a long and lamentable list of her medical conditions between 1980 and today. While no one would ever dispute that Lucy's handlers at the Valley Zoo love her dearly, it is also clear that she has suffered monumentally since her arrival in Edmonton. Lucy lives alone in a compact enclosure with a cement floor. In very cold weather, the weather we are experiencing today, she cannot go outside at all.

For some years now, critics -- most recently, former Price is Right host Bob Barker -- have suggested that Lucy should be moved to a sanctuary in a warmer climate, where she could move about freely and interact with other elephants. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee has agreed to take Lucy. Ed Stewart, the director of PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, a similar sanctuary in California, along with his veterinarian, had planned to come to Edmonton last weekend to take part in a $50 course called "Behind the Scenes with Lucy." The class was cancelled at the last minute, along with a similar event on March 21.

"We cancelled it because of the tone of some e-mails we've received," said Valley Zoo operations supervisor Dean Treichel, on Monday. "They weren't necessarily open threats. But this is a very controversial subject." Treichel said transferring Lucy to Tennessee or California is not up for discussion. For a year and a half, he said, Lucy has been experiencing problems because of a malpositioned tooth. This tooth problem is causing respiratory distress for her, which would make a trip south too dangerous.

Two years ago, zoo director Denise Prefontaine cited respiratory problems as the reason for keeping Lucy in Edmonton.

"Lucy has a chronic respiratory condition that began in 2004," she wrote, in a letter to the Journal, "for which veterinarians and elephant experts have not been able to identify a cause. At times, it compromises her breathing. This condition and the associated stress of a move could put Lucy's life in jeopardy." Yet in December 2008, Prefontaine wrote, again in the Journal, "She has a malpositioned molar that nature is slowly moving out, and we treat this when necessary. We have been advised by animal dental experts that, at this point, we should allow nature to take its course and not impose human interference. Lucy is a calm, well-adjusted and extremely well-cared for elephant." Is it dire or is it not? We have heard repeatedly from the Valley Zoo that Lucy is too sick to be moved. At the same time, she is doing quite well. Stress exacerbates her condition, yet the zoo allows school children in her enclosure. The zoo makes its decisions based on science, not emotion, according to management, yet there seem to be some discrepancies, or at least unknowns, about the science.

There is a helpful precedent for Lucy's situation. Maggie, an elephant at the Alaska Zoo, lived in a small enclosure with a concrete floor. Some in Anchorage wanted her to stay. Others wanted her to go south. She was judged by administrators to be too sick to move. The same administrators worried she would not socialize well with other elephants.

Yet the scientifically responsible Alaska Zoo called in 11 experts to examine the elephant and state their recommendations. Ten of the 11 determined a trip south was worth the risk. Zoo officials and the Alaskan public agonized over the issue and, eventually, in 2007, they made the right decision.

Ed Stewart, the PAWS director, oversees Maggie in her new home -- a 30.35-hectare (75-acre) sanctuary south of Sacramento, Calif. I called him on Monday and asked how Maggie is doing. Better? Worse? "Oh, I would think better," he said, with a laugh. "No comparison. She's with other elephants, which is crucial. She gets a lot of attention from them. She's the princess of the group. The elephant is an unusual and very intelligent animal. In captivity, they go through a lot that is unnatural for them. But Maggie hadn't forgotten what it was like to be outdoors, with other elephants. As for putting them on a trailer, they can be prepared for it, conditioned for it, like any animal." A year after Maggie was moved, the director of the Alaska Zoo visited her and determined she was "in elephant heaven." Valley Zoo director Denise Prefontaine has spoken with Stewart but, he said, "I don't think she was open to much help." Carol Buckley, executive director of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, had a similar experience. "Several months ago I called the zoo and spoke with the supervisor," said Buckley. "I told him that the Sanctuary would be happy to accept Lucy. The supervisor stated that Lucy was not moving and that she was ill. I offered to organize a team of veterinarians specializing in captive elephant disease to examine Lucy. The supervisor declined." It seems bizarre, for an organization that claims to trust science over emotion, to deny scientific opinion. At the very least, Lucy deserves what Maggie received: A thorough looking-over by a neutral panel of elephant veterinarians and animal-transport experts. On Monday, I asked Treichel who the zoo had consulted so far. He named the Valley Zoo veterinarian, Milton Ness, and only one outside expert, Jim Oosterhuis, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Oosterhuis is clearly a qualified and experienced man -- his biography details consulting work with zoos, circuses, and off-exhibit animal collections -- but his is only one opinion. Oosterhuis also happened to be the one dissenting voice on the panel of experts in Alaska, the only doctor of 11 who suggested Maggie remain in Anchorage. On Monday, Oosterhuis was unavailable for comment.

Lucy has brought great joy to generations of children in Edmonton. She has been the star of the zoo since her arrival in 1977. We owe it to her, now, to bring in a panel of experts who can determine her future in a careful, unbiased manner. There is no question that she would be happier and healthier in California or Tennessee, with elephant companions, an earth floor and room to roam.

If she can go, she must go.