Sanctuary for Lucy

September 26, 2010

Lucy is a great big elephant living a lonely and miserable life in Edmonton.

Sounds like the straight line of a tired joke. But there is little to smile about in the case of Lucy.

She is an Asian elephant, 36 years old and she lives in the Valley Zoo. She is the lone elephant in the zoo.

If you have ever been close to an elephant - close enough to touch the rutted skin and stare into the mournful eyes - you can't help but be overwhelmed by their stunning majesty and awesome power. I know I was. That was about 15 years ago at the Toronto Zoo and I've never forgotten the experience.

But the latent power of the great animal seemed undercut by what I can only describe as a lingering sadness. I don't know whether the elephant was sad, it just seemed that way.

Elephants are social and sociable creatures. They live and travel in herds. They are not used to being alone. When they are, they become miserable and often sick.

According to a retired veterinary professor named Jacob Cheeran, elephants can never be fully domesticated. They will always nurse a tendency to return to the wild.

Which may explain why they appear to be sad.

Lucy was the subject of a recent court case, settled for the time being this week in Edmonton.

A petition was brought before the court saying that Lucy was suffering great distress and this was the fault of the Edmonton city government. Acting for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Zoocheck Canada was Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby, better known for his defense of civil and human right than animal rights.

When I talked to him earlier in the week, it didn't take much to get him going on the subject of zoo animals in general and Lucy in particular.

Ruby said: "We don't think enough about the animals in our zoos or how they are treated or mistreated."

Among the affidavits he submitted to the court to strengthen his case was one from Dr. Joyce Poole, one of the world's leading authorities on elephants.

In her affidavit, Dr. Poole writes that Edmonton's harsh winters are especially harmful to elephants.

Plus there is the question of her feet.

Elephants have huge flat feet designed for walking on all kinds of terrain - grasslands, wooded trails, rocky hills, gravel and so on. When they walk only on flat, cemented ground, as in a zoo, their feet become infected.

Mr. Ruby says: "The leading cause of death of zoo elephants is foot infections. They walk around all day in confined quarters in their own excrement."

There is also the question of being alone.

Elephants are not used to loneliness. In fact, experts insist that you never have less than three elephants on a zoo - and five is preferable.

Whether Ruby's case is appealed and goes any further in the courts, something should be done and done now for Lucy.

The answer might be to have an elephant's sanctuary. There are none in Canada. There are two in the US - the largest in a place called Hohenwald, Tennessee, near Nashville.

It is non-profit and licensed by the US Department of Agriculture.

It is designed for old, sick elephants - many retired from circuses. Throughout its 2,700 acres, it provides three separate and protected habitat environments for Asian and African elephants---ideal for Judy.

The animals at Hohenwald are not required to perform or in any way entertain humans. They are allowed to live like elephants.

According to the former head of the American Humane Society: "The Elephant Sanctuary represents the future of enlightened captive elephant management."

It would cost the City of Edmonton to have Lucy transferred to the sanctuary. But it might save and prolong the animal's life.

After all, Lucy has more than done her bit - performed her public service for the good people of Edmonton.

Her predicament, her pain and the increasing number of unnecessary zoo deaths among animals, raise the whole question of the future of the institution.

In this age of instant communication and sophisticated technology do we really need zoos any more?

Or do they inflict more silent pain than they're worth?

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