Lucky the Elephant

She’s a big girl, weighing in at more than 7,000 pounds and standing around 8 feet tall. “Delicate” is not the first word that comes to mind upon meeting her. “Magnificent,” “striking,” and yes, “jumbo,” seem fitting. Yet the welfare, health, and environmental circumstances surrounding Lucky, the San Antonio Zoo’s sole remaining elephant, could not be characterized as anything but highly delicate in nature. She’s been alone now for more than two years, since the death of her female companion Alport. If you ever hike your way back to Lucky’s distant corner of the zoo (an area that appears to be in eternal construction mode) you’re immediately struck by several thoughts: Where’s the shade? (Two manmade “umbrellas” barely shield her vast frame from the blistering Texas sun.) Why no grass, no pond, no vegetation, no sight line to any other animal in the zoo?  She’s confined to an area only slightly larger than the Trinity swimming pool, and a sizable portion of this area is occupied by an 8-foot-deep moat. According to National Geographic, Asian elephants “roam over great distances while foraging for the large quantities of food they require to sustain their massive bodies. Female elephants (cows) live in family herds ... ” And this from “Social unit: gregarious and roam about in herds (of 15-20) led by an old female.”

In October, In Defense of Animals, a nonprofit animal-rights organization based in California, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture against the San Antonio Zoo, claiming the zoo’s treatment of its lone elephant violates federal law. This is also the second year in a row for the S.A. Zoo to make the IDA’s Ten Worst Zoos list. Former zoo veterinarian Mel Richardson, who worked at the San Antonio Zoo for five years, has publicly called for the permanent closure of the “impoverished elephant exhibit.” Randy Murdock, board member of the City’s Animal Care Services, has repeatedly asked for Lucky’s immediate release to a sanctuary in Tennessee. Does it start to seem like something isn’t quite kosher in the ever-escalating “Africa Live!” zone of Brackenridge Park?

The government of India recently banned the keeping of elephants in zoos. Mr. A. N. Prasad, director of “Project Elephant” of the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forest, has stated, “Elephants are large animals and require a large area to move about freely. The environment of a zoo can be very restrictive.” In 2006, In Defense of Animals found that 62-percent of zoo elephants suffered from foot disease, including chronic abscesses, bone infection, toe fractures, cracks and ulcerations; 42 percent suffered from arthritis. Cramped and unnatural conditions, poor substrate, exposure to extreme weather, and lack of exercise are the leading causes of zoo-elephant illnesses. In the U.S. alone, 18 zoos have already closed or are phasing out their elephant exhibits. This includes the esteemed Bronx Zoo, which in 2006 stated that its focus would be on field conservation programs that save elephants in their native range.

When queried, the director of the San Antonio Zoo, Steve McCusker sends out the same tired email time after time, “THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONCERN. WE ASSURE YOU THAT THE SAN ANTONIO ZOO WILL ALWAYS DO WHAT IS BEST FOR ELEPHANTS!”

More than half of the elephants who have died at facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums never reached the age of 40. A typical life span for elephants in the wild is approximately 70 years. The San Antonio Zoo has previously lost elephants Alport, Ginny, and Missy — all premature casualties. The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee (the nation’s largest natural-habitat refuge (2,700 acres), developed specifically to meet the needs of endangered elephants. As their website states, “Our residents are not required to perform or entertain for the public; instead, they are encouraged to live like elephants.” The Sanctuary has offered to move Lucky at their expense so that she has an opportunity to spend her remaining years living precisely “like an elephant.” The San Antonio Zoo has consistently ignored their overtures. Could it possibly be the Zoo is simply reluctant to give up their number-one “rainmaker” no matter how sick, feeble and depressed she becomes? All kids want to see a big, scary, pre-historic elephant (a brontosaurus would be even better but we ran out of those awhile back.) Harried parents slap down substantial cash to keep the peace — a few minutes of “ooohing and ahhhing” in front of Lucky’s cage then off to spend more bills on ice cream, T-shirts, and stuffed zebras. It’s all good. Except for perhaps the most lamentably named of all the Zoo’s inhabitants — “Lucky.”

I spent an afternoon with Madam Lucky a few weeks back.  Frankly, she seemed distracted and anxious. We were constantly interrupted by loudly chattering kids and adults, handlers, and nearby construction workers. Not the most agreeable conditions for an interview, but we were finally able to have a few uninterrupted minutes of candid discourse. Enjoy!

“Kind of you to drop by. It’s been a little lonely back here since we lost Alport a few years ago. Alport was an African elephant and, of course, I’m Asian, but we got on like long-lost sisters. We were together for so many years! I still get emotional when I think of her final days. She tore a knee ligament and couldn’t stand, couldn’t move — it was awful! She was exactly my same age today when we lost her, 49. You know, we stand around all day on this hard-packed dirt, sand and cement — really when you’re as large as we are you need to get off your feet occasionally. We like all kinds of terrain — mud, mulch, grass, sand, gravel, loam. It’s good for our feet, bones, and ligaments to have a variety of surfaces to walk on. Everyone seems to comment on the constant rocking and shifting from foot to foot they see me doing. Try wearing a pair of excruciatingly tight shoes for more than 40 years?  That’s pretty much how I feel most days.”

“I’ve been here since I was 4. I was born in Thailand. They say we elephants never forget, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about my ancestral home. This old rock quarry is all I’ve ever known. Of course, there have been a lot of human “keepers” that have come and gone through the decades. A decent lot, most of them. By and large they do the best they can, given the circumstances. They bring food, I eat. They wash me, they attend to my poor aching feet; they doctor, shelter, and try entertaining me. But just like you and all living things, I miss being with my own. I get so lonely it feels pretty overwhelming at times. I can hear the lions roaring and I know they’re not alone. I hear the hippos splashing and grunting — there’s two of them over there. The bears, kangaroos, alligators, giraffes, rhinos — even the anteaters have companions. And the birds! Have you ever seen so many birds in your life? I ask my grackle friends all the time to please tell me what it’s like to fly. They just laugh and keep filching my food. It is what it is — how can you really know what you really are if it’s all you’ve ever really been?  I heard once about your children’s book, the one with the flying elephant? Oh, how many times have I dreamed of just flapping my ears and flying somewhere far, far away! But where would I go? I’m an old elephant now. Even in my wildest dreams I could never fly all the way back to Asia. Still, it’s a lovely thing to imagine what it might be like. Lovely, scary, and I’m afraid, quite futile.”

“I keep hearing they want to bring in another Asian elephant and put her on display with me at some point. That has me nervous as a duck in a pond full of crocodiles! What if we don’t get along? Where are we supposed to go then? We’re just like you humans — we have our individual likes and dislikes, indeed we do. And an even stranger rumor — we’re only to stay here until the Africa Live! exhibits are up and running and then we’re both to be moved to “destinations unknown” in order to make way for the arrival of the African elephants! Look, I know I may seem befuddled and out of it lately, but does this sound like the best plan the zoo could possibly come up with? I’m old, I’m tired, and I’m not well — it’s a sad fact. I feel like I’ve done my time here. I’ve been a loyal and consistent employee for the organization, always performing my duties with unfailing professionalism and dignity. The time has come for me to retire. I’d like to spend my remaining years where there’s some grass, some ponds, and enough space to roam the hills with my chosen sisters. Please, if it’s important to you would you write a brief note to our Zoo director, Steve McCusker ([email protected], or  [email protected], (210) 734-7184), your Mayor, Julián Castro ([email protected], tel: (210) 207-7060), and your City Council members ( and let them know of your feelings? You have no idea how eternally grateful I would be. (PS:  If you know of any schoolchildren who might want to write a letter on my behalf they can send it directly to: Steve McCusker, Director, San Antonio Zoo, 3903 N. St. Mary’s, San Antonio, TX 78212.)

Blessings on you all!”


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