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A keeper pats Lucy, a 40-year-old asian elephant, during a walk at the Edmonton Valley Zoo in Edmonton, Alberta on Saturday, June 11, 2016.

A keeper pats Lucy, the 41-year-old Asian elephant, during a walk at the Edmonton Valley Zoo in Edmonton on June 11, 2016.

Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail

The elephant nobody forgets

She’s 41, weighs 4,000 kilos, and is at the centre of a bitter fight about the rights of captive animals in a dangerous world. Jana G. Pruden delves into the fraught world of Lucy, the Edmonton Zoo’s greatest draw, and heftiest liability

The elephant house is squat and made of concrete, with windows of bullet-proof glass and gates of heavy steel. Its design reflects the reality of securing animals so strong they can break through bars and fences, so smart and deft they can use their trunks to open latches and doors. The house is linked to three outdoor pens – a large enclosure for the Edmonton Valley Zoo, though some would argue still far too small for an elephant.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, both the elephant house and its outdoor pens are empty. Packs of parents wheel strollers and follow stampeding children into the building to find only a desolate barn, then wheel out again, disappointed, into the sunshine.

“I haven’t seen her for the past three weeks,” one woman says, a little girl tugging on her hand.

A man with two small children calls to a zoo worker unloading a bale of hay from the back of a pickup truck. “Is the elephant coming back today?” he asks.

The worker shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says, then drives away.

A small crowd gathers at the display of black-tailed prairie dogs nearby, hoping maybe the elephant will return while they wait. The prairie dogs are important. They are a crucial part of the ecosystem in North America, and now nearly extinct, their population and habitat only 1 per cent of what it once was. The prairie dogs pop up on their hind legs; they pose and scurry. The crowd watches for a moment, then begins to break apart. The prairie dogs are cute, but they are not elephants. They are not Lucy.

A subject of controversy, lawsuits – and silence

Lucy is 41 years old. She weighs around 4,000 kilograms, about as much as three small cars. She is one of Canada’s last remaining zoo elephants and, living in Edmonton, is thought to be the northernmost elephant in the world. She has been alone since the city’s other elephant, Samantha, was moved to North Carolina in 2007.

Depending on whom you believe, Lucy is comfortable and content living at the Edmonton Valley Zoo, where she is deeply bonded with the humans who work with her, and receiving excellent care. Or, she is lonely and miserable, existing in a state that is nothing less than animal abuse, even torture.

Alone, in a northern environment, Lucy may be the most controversial elephant on the continent. A movement to have Lucy relocated has been ongoing for two decades, and one online petition has garnered more than a quarter-million signatures. The Friends of Lucy Facebook page counts nearly 12,000 members, and there is a website, SaveLucy.ca, entirely devoted to moving her. City and zoo officials maintain Lucy has a breathing problem serious enough that she could die if she were moved.

Celebrities such as Paul McCartney, Joan Jett and William Shatner have weighed into the debate over her future. “Let me add my voice to the crescendo of voices asking for some relief in the fate of your beloved elephant, Lucy,” Mr. Shatner wrote, in a letter to the city in 2009. “In a way, it’s none of our business – Edmonton can capably take care of its own. Yet, in a larger sense, these extraordinary animals are everybody’s responsibility.”

Bob Barker, the retired game-show host and animal activist, has repeatedly offered to pay to have Lucy relocated to an American elephant sanctuary, and has called her the most tragic zoo elephant he knows.

Long the Valley Zoo’s most powerful draw, Lucy may now be its most visible liability. Allegations of her mistreatment are inextricably linked to the zoo’s reputation and image, and the controversy surrounding her has been a persistent issue for the City of Edmonton, which owns and operates the facility.

Though Lucy used to appear regularly in local papers and TV newscasts interacting with visitors and staff, playing, and painting pictures, today she is primarily the focus of stories about lawsuits and protests. The zoo’s former logo, the profile of an elephant, was abandoned in 2011.

The City of Edmonton denied repeated requests to speak about Lucy. City spokeswoman Katherine Heath-Eves wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that no city or zoo officials would grant an interview, because “each time attention is brought to Lucy in the media, our staff are threatened by members of the animal rights/wellness community.” Multiple former and current zoo employees who have worked with Lucy did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, or declined outright to comment for this story.

Lucy is Edmonton’s largest resident, and also its hardest to talk about. She is, quite literally, the elephant in the room.

Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail

The historic allure of ‘charismatic megafauna’

The Edmonton Valley Zoo opened in 1959 on a 107-acre tract of land in Laurier Park, an area of forested valley west of the city’s downtown. It was largely a “children’s zoo” at first, a popular concept at the time, with a nursery-rhyme theme that included a statue of Humpty Dumpty at the entrance and a Three Little Pigs fairy-tale scene populated with live pigs. There was a carousel and miniature train, a tinny soundtrack of children’s and classical music emanating from five speakers on the grounds.

The zoo was the vision of the Edmonton Zoological Society, whose members had a goal of building one of the finest animal attractions on the continent, a place that would “draw more patrons than any other sport or entertainment.”

More than 115,000 people visited the zoo the first month it opened. By the summer of 1960, the zoo boasted 130 birds and 89 animals, including penguins, otters, owls, black lambs, bear cubs and a deodorized skunk, all tended by a human contingent of three men and 10 teenagers.

Even before the zoo opened to the public, plans were under way to add elephants and monkeys to the menagerie. The animals top the list of what are known as “charismatic megafauna,” species that draw humans with their intelligence, behaviour and emotional connection. As a 1954 news story noted, “These are considered a zoo’s main attractions and once they are established the directors believe public support will keep the zoo going.”

The zoo had been open for nearly two decades by the time Lucy arrived on May 19, 1977. She was estimated to be two years old – an orphaned Asian elephant from Sri Lanka who had been purchased from a German animal dealer for $10,000. Her name was Skanik, but in Edmonton she would be known as Lucy.

As expected, Lucy was a big draw. The Calgary Zoo had gotten three elephants from Sri Lanka a year earlier, but Lucy was the first in Edmonton, and some in the city would never have seen a live elephant outside a movie or television show, or the stops of a travelling circus. (In one particularly notable incident in 1926, 14 circus elephants stampeded at Edmonton’s train station after being frightened by a dog, with six escaping into the nearby neighbourhoods of Glenora and Oliver.)

Lucy was charming and clever. She soon taught herself to touch the electric fence around her pen with a log to avoid being shocked, a technique she later used to break the fence around her enclosure two or three times every summer. She appeared affectionate and considerate with the staff who worked with her. One trainer described how Lucy would put her head on the trainer’s shoulder every morning, as though giving her a hug. When being bathed and tended, Lucy moved her feet slowly, seemingly to avoid accidentally hurting those working with her.

Speaking to a reporter from the Edmonton Journal in 1996, zoo worker Dean Treichel described how Lucy learned to playfully back him up against the fence until he dropped her bowl of treats on the ground. He was effusive as he described both her looks and her personality. “She’s a wonderful animal, she really is,” he said then. “You won’t find a better animal in North America.”

A failure to mate, and questions about captivity

But while Lucy’s relationships with the humans around her appeared to grow deep, her interactions with other elephants were less successful.

She was twice trucked to the Calgary Zoo in failed attempts at mating her. Edmonton zoo staff have said in public talks that the matriarch of the Calgary herd never accepted her and that she was rejected by the other females. Lucy, in turn, wasn’t interested in Bandara, the 6,000-pound male with whom she was intended to mate. Staff say the trips made Lucy physically ill, and on one occasion, she became so agitated that she punched a hole in the side of the trailer being used to transport her. Trainer David Leeb said in 1989 that if Lucy had become pregnant in Calgary they would have had to leave her there for two years while she gestated, because transporting her was so stressful that she could have miscarried the baby.

“It failed miserably,” he said.

Lucy remained the only elephant at the Valley Zoo until 1989, when the city brought an orphaned one-and-half-year-old African elephant from Zimbabwe. News stories from the time put a positive spin on the relationship between the two, describing how Samantha, the “friendly orphan,” was tugging on Lucy’s “maternal heartstrings and slowly melting her glacial aloofness.” But zoo staff now say Lucy never fully warmed up to Samantha, and appeared to become jealous or angry when people paid too much attention to the younger elephant. As trainer Sandy Karpluk told a newspaper reporter about Lucy in the spring of 1989, “She has good days and bad days.”

And while Lucy and Samantha continued to be powerful attractions, the mood around the zoo – and around elephants in captivity more generally – was beginning to change. As the zoo sought nearly $2-million for a new elephant house in the mid-1990s, then-mayor Bill Smith said he felt it was time for the city to consider getting out of the zoo business entirely. With people increasingly able to see animals in their natural environment on television, Mr. Smith said he believed “the days of zoos are numbered.”

“I personally have some concerns about zoos and where they are going,” he said then. “There’s an awful lot of people who feel we shouldn’t be caging or locking up animals.”

Mayor Smith’s feelings echoed a broader sentiment swelling across North America, where people were increasingly raising questions about the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity – particularly large, intelligent, emotionally complex animals such as elephants. Eight people had been stomped or gored to death by elephants in the United States in the five years from 1989 to 1994, most while working with elephants at zoos or circuses. Some people were questioning whether it had to do with how the animals were being held: a sudden, violent rebellion against an unnatural life spent in captivity.

A column in the Los Angeles Times in the fall of 1994 declared that elephant handling was statistically “the most dangerous profession” in the United States, with one in 600 people who worked with elephants in that country killed by the animals in an average year.

“Elephant attacks are on the rise,” the column said, “prompting hand-wringing and soul-searching among officials at zoos and circuses across the nation over how to better manage these intelligent, powerful, moody and misunderstood land giants.”

Alan Roocroft, then the chief elephant handler at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, was quoted in that column saying he believed having elephants in captivity was “contrary to how they should be kept for their well-being,” and could result in abnormal behaviour and aggression. (Mr. Roocroft had himself been investigated for participating in the beating of an elephant in 1988, but it was ruled to be a discipline technique “accepted in the animal training profession” at the time.)

“We are now asking ourselves, ‘Can we continue to do this?’” said Mr. Roocroft, in 1994. “Are we being fair to the species?”

Those questions are still being asked today. Once the star attractions of zoos and circuses, elephants have become a flashpoint in the debate around animals in captivity and performance, and around the role of wild animals in a rapidly changing world.

In the time Lucy has been in Edmonton, the human population of the planet has doubled to 7.4 billion, and people are increasingly encroaching onto land where animals once lived. There are few places left for any animal to roam free, least of all animals that take the space and resources of an elephant. And elephants remain a valuable commodity. In Africa, an elephant is being killed by poachers every 15 minutes for its tusks.

Toby Styles, a retired zookeeper who worked with elephants throughout his lengthy career, says most wild elephants don’t live to see their fifth birthday. “Ideally, they’d all live in the wild, and we’d all go see them,” he says. “But the world has got trouble right now.”

This past April, after 145 years of using elephants in performance, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its last shows with elephants, citing concerted pressure from animal-rights groups. In early June, the Royal Canadian Circus announced that it would not be bringing elephants on its Canadian tour for the first time in 30 years – again, because of activist pressure.

The fatal shooting of a gorilla after a child got into a zoo enclosure in Cincinnati in May has also renewed broader debate around zoos and animals in captivity. “Yet again,” began a statement released by the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals after the incident, “captivity has taken an animal’s life.”

Animal-rights activists called for the release of Lucy at a rally outside the Edmonton Valley Zoo in 2011.

Animal-rights activists called for the release of Lucy at a rally outside the Edmonton Valley Zoo in 2011.

John Ulan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

From Bob Barker, a charge of ‘physical torture’

Bob Barker’s voice is smooth and confident, and, when elephants are the subject, strong with purpose.

The long-time host of The Price is Right has emerged as the celebrity face of the movement to relocate Canadian elephants to sanctuaries in the United States, his name almost inextricably linked to the issue of zoo elephants, and to Lucy. He responds to an interview request within minutes.

“I like to talk about elephants,” he says, when he gets on the phone. “I like to help elephants. And I hope you do, too.”

Mr. Barker has personally offered to pay to have Lucy moved, and has travelled twice to Edmonton to see her. But if city officials hoped those meetings would convince him that she is comfortable and properly cared for in Edmonton, their plan didn’t work.

“Anybody who knows anything about elephants knows she’s miserable,” Mr. Barker says. “I don’t care if you are in South Dakota or in Guam or wherever you are. If you know anything about elephants, you know Lucy is miserable.”

In fact, Mr. Barker left Edmonton even more convinced that Lucy had to be relocated to a southern sanctuary, where she can live in a natural environment with other elephants. He points to the bitter Canadian cold, to the starkness of the elephant house, and, most of all, to the fact that she is alone, as evidence that she is not only unhappy in Edmonton but that she is suffering.

“All over the world, experts will agree that elephants are animals that must be with other elephants in order to be happy,” says Mr. Barker. “Just that alone, even if it weren’t too cold, even if she didn’t have to spend so much time inside, all of the other physical torture, actually, that she goes through. If everything else was much, much better, she would still be miserably unhappy because elephants are very companionable. They want to be with other elephants.”

Mr. Barker was a driving force behind the campaign to move the last three Toronto Zoo elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif., in 2013. After two years of argument between city councillors, zoo officials, and PAWS, Mr. Barker paid nearly $1-million to have the elephants transported south to the sprawling sanctuary, which is intended to mirror a more natural habitat.

In passing the motion to move the elephants in late 2012, Toronto city council urged Edmonton’s council to do the same with Lucy, sparking a terse, cross-country confrontation between the municipal governments.

All over the world, experts will agree that elephants are animals that must be with other elephants in order to be happy.

Bob Barker, animal-rights activists

Then-mayor of Edmonton Stephen Mandel called the motion by Toronto city council “ridiculous” and disrespectful, and said he was personally offended by the implication that city administrators would not do what was best for Lucy.

“We have been told repeatedly, repeatedly that this particular wonderful addition to our city would die if we shipped her out,” he said in November, 2012. “Is the philosophy important, to send Lucy south, or to keep her here where she’s healthy?”

At one point, Mr. Barker offered the city $100,000 to let another veterinarian examine Lucy, which Mr. Mandel turned down, calling it “bribing.”

Mr. Barker said he had “never been so unfortunate as to have to deal with people like the government of Edmonton” and that he didn’t know whether Mr. Mandel was “a complete dictator or what.” Mr. Mandel said Bob Barker needed a job.

A veterinarian is compared to Josef Mengele

The Edmonton Valley Zoo is one of four accredited facilities in Canada that still have elephants, and is the last in Western Canada, after the Calgary zoo’s were moved south in 2013 and 2014. There are 21 elephants among the facilities: 16 at African Lion Safari in Ontario; two each at Zoo Parc Safari and Granby Zoo in Quebec; Lucy in Edmonton.

The accreditation agency of Canada’s zoos and aquariums, CAZA, now dictates that elephants must be kept with other elephants, but a special variance was granted for Lucy in 2009 on medical and welfare grounds.

The late Dr. Milton Ness, Lucy’s veterinarian at the zoo from 2007 to 2014, was a strong advocate for keeping Lucy in Edmonton, framing it as a matter of life and death. “I believe it’s time to clearly establish, on the public record, that I will not concede to any campaign which demands Lucy be moved, because to do so would put her life at risk …” he wrote, in a letter published in the Edmonton Journal in 2009. “Lucy is not just any elephant. She is a particular elephant with unique issues and needs.”

American veterinary consultant James Oosterhuis, who has been examining Lucy for the past 14 years, has also repeatedly recommended against moving her because of a respiratory problem in her trunk that causes her to have to breathe through her mouth, even after mild exertion.

“I’m very fearful that if she were put in a stressful situation of a long move, be it by air or by truck, that we could very easily have a respiratory crisis develop with her, and that would not be a very good outcome,” he said, in a video made by the City of Edmonton at the time of an examination in March, 2015.

His report from that time describes Lucy as “calm and well adjusted in her current situation” and says that Edmonton zoo staff act as her “herd members,” providing her physical care, exercise and mental stimulation. He notes that Lucy walks with staff daily on zoo grounds, and that the zoo has a heated exercise barn she can use when it is deemed too cold for her to be outside in the winter.

Dr. Oosterhuis declined to speak further to The Globe and Mail about Lucy or the controversy around her and said all the relevant information is in his reports, which are publicly available.

Those campaigning to have Lucy moved have repeatedly called for her to be examined by other veterinarians, arguing that Dr. Oosterhuis also believed that a solitary elephant in an Alaska zoo should not be moved, and that that elephant has since been successfully relocated to the PAWS facility.

In her e-mailed statement, city spokeswoman Katherine Heath-Eves says that the zoo “routinely consults with elephant experts from around the globe to ensure that Lucy is receiving the best possible care.”

“Most experts who have examined Lucy have chosen not to lend their names to their findings for fear of harassment from activists,” she wrote. She did not elaborate on the experts’ findings.

Edmonton Police Service spokesman Scott Pattison said no incidents of harassment or threats have been reported to police in relation to Lucy, and though there was one report of an altercation that led to a “pushing match,” no charges were laid.

Still, feelings around Lucy run strong, and there is no doubt the debate around her welfare can get very heated – and very personal. In 2009, the zoo cancelled a series of events with Lucy, because of e-mails the zoo received. “They weren’t necessarily open threats,” said zoo employee Dean Treichel, at the time. “But this is a very controversial subject.”

In some online posts and videos, those who work with Lucy are described as, among other things, “sick ignorant uncaring assholes” and “cruel hearted bitches.” Lucy is compared to a “prisoner of war.”

When Dr. Ness, the veterinarian, died suddenly after running a half-marathon in 2014, his death drew harsh comments by some on social media, all related to his work with Lucy. Responding to a story about his death on the Friends of Lucy Facebook page, one person wrote: “It’s like the American army being sorry that the Nazi Dr. Mengele died.”

The risks of relocation

In May, 2003, the Greater Vancouver Zoo sent their lone elephant, Tina, to an animal sanctuary in Tennessee after an emotional debate. She died at the sanctuary just less than a year later.

For Bruce Burton, a veterinarian who had worked with Tina during her 30 years at the zoo, the death raised serious questions about whether it had been right to move her from what she knew to an unfamiliar environment, even a nicer one. “It would be like, without being too anthropomorphic, taking one of us and putting us in the middle of Europe or in the middle of some other country where you don’t know anybody,” he says. “Is that really what you want, or do you want to be around the people that you know?”

While it is impossible to fully understand the emotional life of an elephant, Mr. Burton says he knew from working closely with Tina that she was very attached to people at the zoo. He recalled how she picked one of her former trainers out of a crowd at a goodbye event, and reached her trunk out to touch him, though they hadn’t seen each other for 20 years.

But, while Mr. Burton was against the move, he says he was also open to the idea of the life Tina could have in a sanctuary. At the time of the move, the woman who ran the sanctuary painted an idyllic picture of Tina’s future, telling a reporter that the other elephants would “touch and caress her and bond immediately.”

It sounded wonderful, but Mr. Burton said he learned after Tina’s death that she didn’t adapt well to the new environment. “She didn’t wander around and bask in the trees and the sunlight and frolic with all the other elephants that were down there. I was told that she never left the building that she was in,” he said. “Then I said, well, it would have been better for her to have stayed here than to have been moved into strange circumstances.”

One of the Toronto Zoo elephants, Iringa, had to be euthanized in July, 2015, less than two years after being moved to the PAWS sanctuary, after what was described at the time as a history of degenerative joint and foot disease. A Chicago Zoo elephant, Wankie, died after becoming ill during her transport to a Utah zoo in 2005, to be with other elephants in a warmer climate.

Of course, Tina, Iringa and Wankie all may have died anyway: Each had significant health problems long before they were moved. Tina and Wankie were in their mid-30s, and Iringa was 46, old for an elephant in captivity. Many other elephants are relocated successfully, and go on to live long lives in their new environment.

Ed Stewart, president and co-founder of the PAWS sanctuary in California, says the other two Toronto elephants, Thika and Toka, are doing “really well” at the sanctuary, and are still in the process of being gently integrated into the herd. Thika, who was born in captivity, is sometimes still “a little confused about elephants,” he says, but will likely be fully introduced in the coming weeks.

There are eight elephants at PAWS, including Maggie, who had been transferred from Alaska nine years ago. Mr. Stewart says many of the same concerns that have been raised about Lucy were raised about Maggie – including that she was a “people elephant” who had been with humans most of her life, and wouldn’t know how to deal with other elephants. But Mr. Stewart says that, after arriving at PAWS, Maggie “went right into the middle of the group and has been in the middle of the group ever since.” He says the same thing could happen with Lucy.

Or maybe not.

“There’s no guarantee she’s going to come out of the trailer and run to the other elephants and everybody will live happily ever after,” he says. “But I think she’s still young enough that it is well worth a try.”

But the stakes are high, and the answers uncertain. Mr. Burton admits he still doesn’t know if moving Tina was the right thing to do for her, taking her individual needs as an animal into account.

“I regret that she was moved, but if she had died here, I would have felt bad, too,” he said. “And then we would have been kicking ourselves thinking, why didn’t we move her?”

There are some, including Bob Barker, who say it may be better for Lucy to die en route to a preserve than to continue living in Edmonton the way she is – even that she would have been better off to die an orphan in freedom in Sri Lanka than to have spent her life in captivity.

“If she did die during the trip, it would probably be better,” Mr. Barker says. “She’d be better off than going through torture up there.”

Toby Styles has heard those arguments about Lucy, and elephants overall. He disagrees. “I’ve seen them die,” he says. “And no. They wouldn’t be better to die in freedom.”

Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail

Are zoos a necessity?

In the 1970s, Toby Styles accompanied three elephants and a black rhinoceros on a two-week journey to North America on a Polish freighter, during the same wave of elephant import that saw Lucy brought to Edmonton.

“I tell people, there was a choice: These animals could either leave Africa and come to Europe or North America and live their lives, or they would be shot. That’s what was happening,” Mr. Styles says. “There wasn’t enough room, and they were culling them to make room for people.”

Mr. Styles grew up around wild animals in Banff, and worked at the Alberta Game Farm outside Edmonton in the 1960s, before going on to work at zoos in Calgary and Toronto. By the time he retired from the Toronto Zoo in 2000, he would be known by some in that city as Mr. Zoo, the public face of the facility. At times, he says he was under police watch because of threats from animal activists.

Mr. Styles worked with more than 50 elephants in the course of his career, and met and examined Lucy, whom he describes as “a great, gentle soul.” He says for a time, he could see a picture of any elephant in North America and know which one it was. The ways elephants have affected his life are profound, personal. He met his wife through an elephant. His daughter is named after one. He likes to joke that there are two kinds of animals: elephants and everything else.

“I’m always sad people didn’t get to know elephants like I knew them,” he says. “To sit and talk to them, and get talked back to. The relationship is very hard to describe. A big elephant can be 12,000 pounds, and you develop a real relationship. You feed them and bathe them and tickle them.”

While the free contact he enjoyed with elephants – and which is still used with Lucy – is now rare (a more restricted contact has since become the standard for working with zoo elephants), he says the value of being able to see an animal in person remains profound. He recalls a fellow zookeeper’s story about a little girl not wanting to leave the elephant house at the Bronx Zoo, even when her mother pointed out they had an elephant DVD at home they could watch any time.

“She told her mother, ‘But this one is big,’” he said, recounting the story. He remembers seeing an elephant for the first time himself at a circus in the 1940s.

“When you see an elephant, you know what an elephant is. And it’s the things you know that you care about.”

CAZA executive director Massimo Bergamini says he sees the future of zoos and aquariums in building meaningful connections between people and nature, and then using those connections to change attitudes and behaviours. He gives the example of using aquariums to teach children about the threat posed by plastic garbage in the oceans, and hopefully, make them care.

I’m always sad people didn’t get to know elephants like I knew them. … A big elephant can be 12,000 pounds, and you develop a real relationship. You feed them and bathe them and tickle them.

Toby Styles, who worked at the Alberta Game Farm outside Edmonton in the 1960s, before going on to work at zoos in Calgary and Toronto

Mr. Bergamini points to a 1974 study that showed two to three animal species being lost to extinction every year. Now, he says, even by conservative estimates there are two or three disappearing every day. He points out that there are now many species that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for zoos.

“That’s our reality,” he says. “Where we come from, what we believe is that we absolutely need zoos.”

But Mr. Stewart, at PAWS, says that if the aim of zoos is education and conservation, it hasn’t worked. Elephants have been on display at zoos and circuses throughout the world for 150 years, but the threats they face individually and as a species remain dire. Millions of people have seen Lucy in the time she has been in Edmonton, but has it really made a difference? “The only thing elephants in captivity have taught us,” he says, “is that they don’t belong in captivity.”

Instead, Mr. Stewart says that he believes the key to saving elephants and other species may rest in economic innovation – finding ways to make it economically viable for countries to preserve remaining habitats, and stop the spread of human development into those areas.

“Trying to weigh economics against habitat, the habitat eventually loses,” he says. “And once it loses, it’s gone.”

A Lucy light brigade

People start to gather near the elephant house well before the Saturday-morning talk is set to begin. It is the one time of the week when you know Lucy will be there, when she will not be out walking, or in her winter barn, or somewhere else on the sprawling grounds, out of public sight. She can be surprisingly hard to find, especially for an elephant.

Those filling the bleachers know her by name. Children call out for her restlessly, barely distracted by the packaged snacks doled out by their parents, or by the sight of the snow leopard blinking languidly in a pen across the way. They are not appeased until Lucy’s silhouette finally appears in the door of the barn, almost filling it with her bulk.

The movement to have Lucy relocated ebbs and flows in the public eye, but it always continues. Lucy is never forgotten. E-mails and letters stream in to politicians; campaigns are planned and considered. There are tweets and Facebook posts. The California-based group In Defense of Animals has inducted the Valley Zoo into its Hall of Shame, and PETA recently included the zoo on its list of “Highway Hellholes” for keeping Lucy alone. In recent weeks, there was a candlelight vigil and a “light brigade,” illuminating the words “Save Lucy” above a busy freeway overpass in Edmonton. With social media, a single photo, sometimes even the mention of her name, is enough to get the controversy roiling again.

The City of Edmonton web page for the zoo features a separate “Lucy News” link, which goes to a video of a 2015 veterinary examination and a series of documents related to her health and welfare. The zoo recently released a new pamphlet entitled Let’s Crush the Myths. “The Edmonton Valley Zoo is home to an Asian elephant named Lucy who has been the subject of great attention,” the pamphlet reads. “Most of it comes from inflammatory and inaccurate campaigns by activists on the local, national, and international levels. We believe you deserve the facts on Lucy’s health and well-being.”

Mr. Bergamini, CAZA’s executive director, says the organization has a new policy that requires independent, third-party assessments be done every year in cases where there have been variances of zoo standards, as was done to allow Lucy to be kept alone. He said Lucy’s first assessment is being done this summer, and is being performed by an experienced British veterinarian who has particular expertise working with a lone female Asian elephant. He added that CAZA specifically looked for an expert outside North America, and one with “unimpeachable qualifications.”

“We wanted to make sure this was seen to be done right,” he said.

Ed Stewart says he regularly gets e-mails at the PAWS sanctuary asking about Lucy, many of which are from people angry and frustrated that she is still in Edmonton. He says there are extremists on both sides. “It’s a fight right now,” he says. “People yell at me all the time that I’m not doing anything about Lucy.”

Mr. Stewart says he would like to see a summit-style meeting, where all sides work together in a positive way to look at options for moving Lucy, whether to a sanctuary or to another zoo in a warmer climate, and where she would not be alone. He says a plan could include gradually training Lucy to be inside a transport container, to see if she could be made calm enough to make the journey to a new facility.

“And if they can’t do it, then they can’t do it,” he said. “But at least they’ve tried.”

He said Lucy “might surprise everybody.”

Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail

Now 41, and showing her age

Two keepers bathe Lucy outdoors in front of a watching crowd at the Saturday-morning talk. As they work, a zoo employee talks about elephants, about the dangers of poaching and ivory, and deforestation. She tells them about Lucy, about her teeth and her poop, about the life she has led in the zoo in Edmonton.

The zoo celebrated Lucy’s 41st birthday on Canada Day. The sign in front of her enclosure lists the average age of an Asian elephant at less than 45. The mottled pink on the edges of her ears and trunk show signs of her age, like a human’s hair turning grey. City officials have said elephants are not part of their plan for the zoo’s future. Lucy was Edmonton’s first elephant, and she will most likely be its last.

The keepers pat and caress her with their hands, rubbing her trunk, talking to her with words the crowd cannot hear. Some of them have been working with Lucy for years, decades. The topography of her skin is all lines and wrinkles, like a map of the world from space. It is thick, but soft enough that even a mosquito can draw blood. She flutters her ears, and blinks in the sunlight, then smoothly coils her trunk around a hose, and brings the stream of water to her mouth to drink.

“There’s Lucy,” a little girl says, pointing out from the crowd. “She’s the best elephant in the world.”

Jana G. Pruden is a reporter with The Globe and Mail.


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