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Lucy the elephant with Valley Zoo staff. ((CBC))

Animals rights groups are taking the City of Edmonton to court over Lucy, the Asian elephant at the city-run Valley Zoo.

The two-page originating notice was filed in Edmonton on Monday by high-profile lawyer Clayton Ruby on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Zoocheck Canada and Tove Reece, an Edmonton animal rights activist.

The notice alleges that Lucy has been suffering from a number of illnesses and that she is under distress "caused or permitted by the City of Edmonton." The application asks the court to declare the City of Edmonton in violation of the Animal Protection Act.

"We're alleging a violation of the Animal Protection Act of Alberta," Ruby said. "In order to succeed, we have to show that, the City of Edmonton keeps Lucy, and that Lucy is in distress … for the purposes of this lawsuit, distress means that Lucy is deprived of adequate shelter and space, and alternatively, that Lucy is in pain and suffering. We say both operate here."

The application is supported by affidavits filed by veterinarians and elephant experts, including Dr. Joyce Poole, an elephant behaviour expert, and Dr. Philip Ensley, a veterinarian who worked at the San Diego Zoo for almost 30 years.

'The City of Edmonton is prepared to defend legal action required to ensure that Lucy's best interests are protected.' —Linda Cochrane, City of Edmonton

The legal action is the latest step in a long and public battle between the Valley Zoo and animal rights groups, who want the city to move Lucy to one of two elephant sanctuaries in the United States, where they argue she could live in a more temperate climate, in the company of other elephants.

"We do ... take real exception to the allegations that Lucy is not well-cared for," Linda Cochrane, the city's general manager of community services, said in a news conference that immediately followed the PETA and Zoocheck announcement.

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Lawyer Clayton Ruby speaks to reporters in Edmonton Monday about the court action filed against the city-owned Valley Zoo. ((Andrea Huncar/CBC))

The city is acting in Lucy's best interests by keeping her at the zoo because the stress of a move would aggravate her respiratory problems and kill her, Cochrane said.

"Our actions have always been and will continue to be guided solely by what's in Lucy's best interests," she said. "And to that end, the City of Edmonton is prepared to defend legal action required to ensure that Lucy's best interests are protected."

Lucy, 34, has lived alone since September 2007, when the zoo's other elephant was moved to be part of a breeding program at an American zoo.

"Elephants are social, the same way we are," Ruby said. "They require other elephants and solitary confinement is cruel and unusual for humans and it is distress for Lucy."

Last fall, the city brought in elephant veterinarian Dr. James Oosterhuis to assess Lucy's condition. Oosterhuis determined it would be unethical to move Lucy as he believed a move could possibly kill her.

The city has until March 1 to respond to the court application.