A new assessment of a controversial Alberta elephant has recommended that she remain at the Edmonton Valley Zoo based on findings that she is being well cared for, appears healthy and bonded to her workers – and that she could die if she is moved.
"Whilst not impossible, a move would carry a grave and unquantifiable risk to Skanik's life and the question ultimately falls to whether the lack of social interaction with species of her own kind and the seasonal challenges found in winter is of greater welfare compromise than the risk of her dying if attempting to move her," Jonathan Cracknell wrote in a 30-page report released by the City of Edmonton on Tuesday.
Though Skanik was her original name, the 41-year-old elephant is publicly known as Lucy. She has been in Edmonton since 1977, and has been alone since 2007.
Dr. Cracknell, a British veterinarian, wrote that management and those working with Lucy in Edmonton "would not be averse to moving her" if a suitable location was found and she was deemed fit to travel.
The report was ordered by the Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, or CAZA, as part of a new requirement to have an annual independent review in cases where a variance of zoo standards has been granted. In Edmonton, there is a variance that allows Lucy to be kept alone, though the CAZA standard now requires elephants be kept with other elephants.
In his report, Dr. Cracknell acknowledged the ongoing efforts of animal activist organizations to have Lucy moved, and noted that she "has become the face of lone elephants." It says Zoocheck, one of the organizations that has campaigned to have Lucy moved, asked him to examine her in 2015, but he had a spinal injury that prevented him from taking on the assessment at that time.
CAZA executive director Massimo Bergamini previously said his organization specifically looked for a specialist from outside North America for the assessment because of the continuing controversy around Lucy's welfare, and called Dr. Cracknell's qualifications "unimpeachable."
The report said Dr. Cracknell was not paid for the assessment, aside from his travelling expenses.
The assessment of Lucy took place from June 17 to 22, the report said, and included shadowing people who worked with her, observing her daily routine, physical examinations and setting up cameras to review footage of her behaviour overnight.
Dr. Cracknell wrote that he also reviewed her recorded history, but noted there was a "historical loss or lack of recording of important data" related to "concerns of [access to information] requests, and historical misuse or misquotes of information provided." He said that process has changed, and data are now being documented.
In his report, Dr. Cracknell described Lucy as "an unusual elephant in an unusual situation," and said he agreed with the opinion of previous veterinarians and specialists that moving her "as she currently is would be unethical and potentially kill her." He wrote that there is also no obvious choice of facility that would be able to give Lucy the same medical support and focused attention that she receives in Edmonton, even if she could be safely moved.
He said Lucy continues to have severe dental and respiratory issues and "considerable airway pathology," but is otherwise in good physical health.
"The current level of care, both behaviourally and physically, are excellent and provide Skanik with a range of choice and stimulation," Dr. Cracknell wrote. "In addition, she has a firm bond with her keeping team that is long-standing, and consideration of any potential moves must consider what losing this would mean to her as an individual (generic elephant considerations aside)."
The report said Lucy is "doted over and often gets her own way" and that she has a variety of enrichment activities to keep her stimulated. Dr. Cracknell wrote that activities that could "compromise her physically or demean her" – such as lifting people on her trunk, standing on two legs or having people ride her – have all been phased out, and that she has two keepers with her at all times and displays "an exceptionally strong bond with the staff."
"Whilst this can never replace the elephant-elephant interactions nor species-specific relationships, Edmonton Valley Zoo has provided the next best thing, where they could just as easily have managed her as a show animal," he wrote.
Dr. Cracknell made a number of other recommendations around Lucy's care, including that a closed-circuit television system should be installed to allow 24-hour surveillance and documentation of her activity and behaviour, and that there should be a review of facilities in Canada and the United States where she could be moved if her condition changes. He said that could possibly be done by some of the organizations that have campaigned to have Lucy relocated.