May 24th, 2013 by Nicole Meyer
IDA Slams the San Antonio Zoo Over Decision to Keep Lucky Alone
Sad. That’s the only word to describe the San Antonio Zoo’s announced decision to keep a 53-year-old elephant named Lucky alone at the zoo, likely until she dies. The zoo’s other elephant, Queenie, died in March.
Attempting to justify the unjustifiable, the zoo’s director made the misleading claim that Lucky is antisocial and doesn’t get along with other elephants—a flimsy argument parroted by several other zoos struggling to rationalize keeping a member of a profoundly social species in solitary confinement.
The Bowmanville Zoo and the Edmonton Zoo, both in Canada, make this claim regarding their solitary female elephants, as did the Anchorage Zoo in Alaska. Maggie lived alone for a decade before the Anchorage Zoo finally retired her to a sanctuary in 2007 in the face of a crisis: Maggie collapsed in her enclosure. Today, she is thriving in the company of other elephants in an expansive habitat at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California.
Lucky’s plight raises serious questions about the practices and ethics within the zoo industry and its accrediting body—the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)—regarding captive elephant programs. The AZA reportedly granted the San Antonio Zoo a variance, overruling its own guidelines that female elephants should be housed in groups of three. Lucky is now the only known solitary female elephant at a zoo accredited by the AZA.
Another zoo recently faced a similar situation, but handled it with much more compassion. Following the death of one of their two elephants, the Baton Rouge Zoo decided to send the surviving elephant to the National Zoo in order to provide her with companionship. Recognizing the social needs of female elephants, the National Zoo stated, “The best thing for an elephant is another elephant. Elephants are a social species.”
There is no sound argument to support the San Antonio Zoo’s erroneous assertion that Lucky is “atypical” and “prefers to be alone, by herself.” The zoo’s decision to keep Lucky alone ignores decades of scientific research documenting the fact that female elephants are intensely social—in the wild they live in matriarchal, multi-generational herds that include sisters, aunts, nieces, and nephews. Lucky’s needs are no different from any other elephant, but what sets her apart is 51 years in captivity. In the San Antonio Zoo’s cramped and grossly outdated exhibit, Lucky has seen a string of elephants die. Some she may have gotten along with, maybe not so well with others, but this isn’t Lucky’s fault—it’s the zoo’s fault for subjecting unrelated elephants to an exhibit that’s too small for proper elephant interaction. And now, the zoo continues to deny Lucky the two things she needs most: the companionship of other elephants of her own choosing and room to roam.
The last time the AZA granted the zoo a variance, Lucky was housed in isolation for nearly three years. The AZA states in its guidelines it will not grant variances after September 2016. So what then?
In Defense of Animals sincerely hopes that it doesn’t take a life-threatening crisis for the zoo to finally put its own selfish interests aside and retire Lucky to a facility with a more natural environment that will offer her room to roam and the companionship of other elephants of her own choosing. The novelty of seeing an elephant in a zoo does not justify subjecting Lucky to further trauma by keeping her in solitary confinement. Surely, the people of San Antonio don’t want their own zoo treating one of the most sensitive and intelligent animals on earth so poorly.