EDMONTON – In a hilly field filled with shrubs and trees in an undeveloped part of the zoo, a massive creature plays hide-and-seek with her keepers.
Slowly walking around a pathway the animal remembers well, she soaks up the sun and breeze while cavorting with its human friends.
“She loves grazing on the grass up here,” says head zookeeper Wade Krasnow, who has been caring for the animal for almost two decades.
“She” is Lucy, a beloved Asian elephant who has been a fixture at Edmonton’s Valley Zoo for the last 32 years.
Lucy is at the centre of a long-standing and escalating debate between the city-owned zoo and a growing group of high-profile animal rights advocates over how the animal should spend her remaining years.
Advocates say the Valley Zoo is too small for Lucy and that she would be happier and healthier in a larger refuge with other elephants.
“Lucy is socially isolated, forced to endure cold weather, has very little space in her enclosure and many medical problems,” says Julie Woodyer, national campaign director with Zoocheck Canada.
Zoo staff, who have cared for Lucy almost her entire 34-year life, fear that moving the pachyderm away from her keepers will cause too much stress and push the animal over the edge.
“It could be life-threatening for her health condition,” says Dr. Milton Ness, Lucy’s veterinarian.
Zoocheck has launched a public campaign to push for Lucy’s relocation to a sanctuary in the United States and wants the city to do an “independent” assessment of the elephant’s health.
It has launched a website and is running ads around the city. “Your tax dollars pay for her suffering,” reads one. “Isolation and bitter cold winter on the way. Hasn’t she endured enough?” reads another.
In a letter to city council sent in July, elephant behaviour expert Dr. Joyce Poole said that “after 32 years of captive misery, Lucy deserves to be given what is in her best interests.”
Last May, a number of Canadian authors, including Barbara Gowdy, Elizabeth Abbott, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, sent a letter to the Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel asking him to facilitate Lucy’s transfer to a better home.
And next month, Zoocheck says Bob Barker, former game show host and prominent animal rights advocate, is coming to Edmonton to pressure city councillors to move Lucy.
Ness admits Lucy has health problems. On top of early arthritis, Lucy has developed a respiratory condition due to a malpositioned molar.
“It’s like people with asthma,” Ness says. “This problem has been going on since 2005, so I’m not expecting an instantaneous or quick recovery.”
Ness says the Valley Zoo takes good care of Lucy and a sanctuary won’t necessarily meet her needs “because her imprint is bond to people.” And her respiratory condition makes travelling “impossible.”
At this time of the year, zoo staff say Lucy takes up to three strolls a day to a back paddock where she grazes and climbs hills for a couple of hours. Her favourite time is when she showers, grabbing the hose with her trunk. Zoo keepers scrub her from back to front, while she submerges her paws in a special soap solution as part of the care for her feet.
If the high-profile campaign fails, Zoocheck says it will consider legal avenues.
Woodyer argues that Alberta standards for zoos makes it illegal to keep an elephant alone because of the animal’s social needs.
“The zoo is keeping other veterinarians from examining her because she is maybe healthy enough to travel and then, by law, she must be moved right away,” Woodyer says.
But Bill Peters, president of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, says there is a health exception to that rule.
“The situation of Lucy is absolutely not illegal and it doesn’t contravene our standards,” he says.
The average lifespan for an Asian elephant living in captivity is 44.8 years, according to association figures.
Zoocheck says Lucy should be moved as soon as possible, but Valley Zoo staff disagree.
“Nobody can predict the future,” says Maureen Anderson, another one of Lucy’s keepers who has cared for the elephant for 21 years.
“We have to take one day at a time.”