An account of a single Asian elephant in a zoo in Alberta, Canada sums up the depressing life of a solitary animal.
Words by Kristen Warfield: “Every day for Lucy is mostly the same. She stands in her barren concrete enclosure, behind a glass wall, as visitors watch her slowly pace around. She has a tire hanging from the ceiling as a toy and no pool or mud bath to play in outside. And it’s been over a decade since Lucy last saw another elephant. Lucy is 43 years old and has been at the zoo since she was taken from the wild in 1977 as a calf. She was alone for many years until the zoo brought in a young African elephant named Samantha for Lucy ‘to mother’ in 1989. Lucy and Samantha shared the same enclosure for 18 years. It was likely just as barren then – but they had each other. In 2007, the zoo sent Lucy’s only friend away to North Carolina on a breeding loan. Samantha was never brought back.”
Keeping elephants in captivity can be incredibly cruel. In the wild elephants are social creatures living in complex family groups. But for Lucy, every day is much the same. She lives at the Edmonton Valley Zoo in Alberta, Canada. The Zoo is quick to point out that she has a Care Team who prepare a schedule for Lucy to plan her every day activities. They think this is important that ‘she is intellectually stimulated and not bored from her rigid routines.’ The Zoo also claims she has at least two long walks a day around the zoo as well as exercises and games. Apparently Lucy doesn’t need other elephants for companions. Her human care team are the herd she loves, according to the zoo.
Why did the Edmonton Valley Zoo not bring Samantha back to live with Lucy?
Apparently there were many photos of Lucy and Samantha ‘standing next to each other, and holding trunks together.’ But the Zoo insists Lucy is not a social elephant and prefers to be on her own with humans. Yet in the wild, female elephants live in stable family groups with their mother, sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmothers. The leader is often the oldest and largest female in the herd, called a matriarch. Unfortunately many zoos across the world force elephants to live lonely solitary lives in captivity. The facilities provided are always going to be inadequate even if the minimum care standards are being met under each country’s Animal Protection Acts. But it’s the social requirements which should be seen as equally important and none of them can be fulfilled when an animal is kept in solitary confinement. Whilst Lucy may be ‘fond’ of her human carers they cannot be a substitute for elephant companions. Lucy had the company of Samantha for eighteen years. There may have been fraught moments between them because as elephants (Lucy is Asian and Samantha is African) they were being contained in unsuitable small zoo enclosures. Lucy was bought from a wildlife dealer in 1977 who had acquired her from an orphanage in Sri Lanka. She arrived at the Zoo when she was 2 years old. Even though Sri Lanka has the highest density of wild elephants in Asia they still have large areas of natural habitat to roam. Asian elephant calves, like African elephant calves, live with their mothers until the age of 5 years. Lucy obviously didn’t have the best start in life as a youngster.
Lucy is also subject to the cold winters in Alberta where the temperature can drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is a far cry from the warm temperatures in her native Sri Lanka where she was taken from her natural habitat. Zoo director, Denise Prefontaine, claims Lucy doesn’t need to be taken to somewhere warmer. They have been looking after her for 40 years and she is not out in the cold for very long when she is being exercised. But Edmonton can have long cold winters and during that time Lucy can’t be expected to exercise adequately in freezing temperatures. In fact Lucy is in captivity in what is likely to be the northernmost home for an elephant on earth. Consequently she has suffered from numerous ailments because of the cold weather and the confinement of her zoo enclosures. Like many captive elephants she suffers from arthritis and foot problems. She has been over weight and she suffers from respiratory issues. She has had a number of veterinary checks and the zoo have taken on aboard the requirements, routines and drugs that Lucy needs to live a ‘comfortable life’ within the confinement of her surroundings. One of the criticisms has been that all the vet checks seem to have come from veterinarians associated with the organisation that represents Canada’s zoos and aquariums. Various animal rights charities advocated for independent veterinary checks which they felt would possibly have agreed that Lucy would have been fit enough to be transported to an elephant sanctuary.
To be fair you could say Edmonton Valley Zoo in Alberta operates very similar to many zoos across the world.
They all try to justify their existence with conservation, education and research. But it has become very clear that in reality there is very little evidence of conservation when, for example, around 95% of animals in European Zoos are not relevant enough to merit being part of a breeding programme. Many have the same issues of hybridisation, inbreeding and disease. How can they educate the paying public on conservation when people have paid for their tickets at the gate for a fun and entertaining day out? What zoos are actually doing is perpetuating the idea that animals in zoos are there for our entertainment and the artificial conditions that they are kept in are perfectly acceptable. Edmonton Valley Zoo describes itself as “a small and intimate zoo that provides authentic and engaging animal experiences.” It also admits to capital investment from the City of Edmonton in order for “guests to closely interact with animals.” The City of Edmonton actually own and operate the zoo. Their vision is “A special place that inspires love and learning of animals and nature.” But this is nonsense because people and families are actually coming to the zoo to be entertained by petting animals who are hardly situated in their natural environments. Lucy, the zoo’s only elephant, is far away from her natural environment. She has no other elephants for company and this does actually violate zoo standards but the zoo maintains on the subject of Lucy’s lonely confinement, that “there are extenuating circumstances that must be considered for Lucy’s well being.”
Lucy’s Edmonton Advocate’s Project (LEAP) is a group whose aim has been to increase the involvement of advocates to free Lucy the elephant from the Edmonton Valley Zoo.
The group consists of animal lovers who actively campaign for the release of Lucy from Edmonton Valley Zoo to an elephant sanctuary in the United States. There are currently 5,685 members on their Facebook page. For over a decade LEAP has passionately campaigned to have Lucy transported to one of two elephant sanctuaries in the United States. Famous celebrities have got on board and offered significant amounts of cash to pay for Lucy’s transport to a sanctuary. A large donation of $100,000 dollars was offered to the City of Edmonton for Lucy to be examined by an independent veterinarian. But Edmonton Valley Zoo will not budge and surrender their only elephant to an elephant sanctuary. They say she is too ill to travel and it would be unkind to take her away from the only existence she has known since she was a baby. Besides they look after her well at the zoo. A cynic might say it’s Lucy who is the one looking after the zoo. This poor creature’s life has been dedicated to helping ticket sales on the gate of the zoo for over forty years.
In May 2011 Edmonton Valley Zoo produced a 20 page document outlining how their “zoo is a place that fosters enduring bonds between animals and people.”
Their grand scheme would be a small zoo having a huge role to play in engaging people in the need to preserve and protect the natural world. There are countless zoos that have turned their aims to something similar but the reality is they are normally trying to justify their continued existence. How can you justify keeping animals in small enclosures? You cannot compare it to their natural habitat. People need to see animals in the wild. Stroking them in a zoo and standing near them in a zoo is not really engaging people. This sort of thing is for the benefit of the paying public and has very little to do with the welfare of the animals. On page 16 of the document it is headed with “Collection decisions based on the best interests of animals.” The zoo staff had a thoughtful consultation and decision process with the outcome that elephants will not be part of the Edmonton Valley Zoo animal collection in the long term. Meanwhile their priority was Lucy and the zoo would continue to be fully responsible for her. It’s a sad reflection when you think that decision was made over 8 years ago when the zoo could have let her go to an elephant sanctuary. All her expenses would have been covered and this wonderful Asian elephant could have spent all those years and more in a warmer climate with grass under her feet instead of concrete. A creature taken from the wild as a baby and sold on to a zoo to live almost 42 years in the confines of a zoo looking through a glass wall at the paying public. There must be a lot of people out there who would call it a travesty of justice for Lucy.