Zoo attendant Paul Williams walks with Lucy the elephant at the Edmonton Valley Zoo, in Edmonton on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Edmonton zoo says Lucy the elephant too sick to be moved to sanctuary

For the beloved and well-known elephant named Lucy, the Edmonton Valley Zoo says it will continue to be her home for the rest of her life based on medical assessments.

The medical information released by the zoo on Tuesday showed the 47-year-old Asian elephant should not be moved, despite demands from animal rights groups over the past several years that she be transferred to a sanctuary in a warmer climate.

The zoo has been working closely with the animal advocacy group Free the Wild, which co-operated in the assessment, since October.

Gary Dewar, the zoo’s director, said the medical report stated that Lucy has “severe breathing issues” and three of four experts believe moving the lone elephant from the zoo could be life-threatening.

Two visiting veterinarians said Lucy breathes solely from her mouth — an unusual phenomenon for elephants, the zoo said.

Dewar added that the veterinarians couldn’t diagnose the root cause of the animal’s breathing issues.

For visitors of the zoo, it’s considered lucky to catch sight of Lucy. In semi-retirement since 2020, the elephant is no longer on public display but continues to engage with her team of caretakers.

In a large dome filled with sand, Lucy flapped her ears and made grunting sounds as she threw sand over her back, a sign of joy, said a caretaker.

“Her day goes very much the way she wants it to go,” added Dewar. “We’re not going to dictate her schedule, she does that.”

The zoo has been engaging in free-contact management with Lucy, he said, meaning there’s no barrier between her and the keepers.

Lucy came to the zoo as an orphan in 1977 from Sri Lanka.

Former “The Price is Right” game show host Bob Barker and other celebrities have joined animal rights groups in a high-profile campaign urging the zoo to move Lucy to a sanctuary in the United States.

The groups, including Zoocheck and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, have said Lucy was overweight, lonely and plagued with health problems.

PETA also turned to the legal system to move Lucy. In 2012, it took the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the application was dismissed.

PETA said the latest development from the zoo “just adds to its litany of excuses from over a decade or more as to why it wouldn’t give this poor elephant a decent retirement from a lonely, cold environment.”

“She could have been moved long, long ago and this zoo has failed her time and again,” PETA said in a statement.

The zoo continues to focus on improving the elephant’s quality of life as she inches toward old age. An Asian female elephant in captivity in North America typically lives to the age of 45, said Dewar.

The zoo has also received funding from the city to make infrastructure changes to Lucy’s enclosure, which could also include a new pool, Dewar said.

Experts also discovered that Lucy has a uterine tumour, which is common in female elephants that have never given birth, the zoo said. The tumour is being treated with a vaccine that visiting veterinarians recommended.

Zoo veterinarian Marie-Josee Limoges said the tumour could affect Lucy’s life expectancy because of its increasing discomfort.

Several recommendations from the experts who examined Lucy have been implemented, including changes to the diet of the overweight elephant.

“We’re pleased to say that changes to Lucy’s diet in the four months since the assessment took place have resulted in a 326-kilogram weight loss,” the zoo said.

Dewar said that on Monday, Lucy weighed about 3,958 kilograms, and might need to lose another 200 kilograms.

Sagan Cowne with Free the Wild praised Edmonton zoo staff for their “extraordinary” care of Lucy.

“It’s definitely a very good baseline from which any zoo should look to (to care for) their animals,” Cowne said.

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