We’re at the San Antonio Zoo to examine Lucky the elephant, a 48-year-old Asian female and subject of a grassroots push for liberation. But somehow we can’t get past the black rhino lying listlessly in her own crap.

My guide is the advocacy and education coordinator of a nearby sanctuary known as Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation. It’s a position I held before him during a seven-month slice that interrupted 10 years of newspapering.

“She’s being treated for diarrhea,” Don Elroy says, as the rhino, on cue, blasts more gaseous liquid across her hind quarter and twitching tail. “We’ve been keeping our eyes on her, too.”

The rhino enclosures are fairly barren: a plot of compacted earth, a concrete bunker, a tree, and a mister. “It’s not a habitat,” says
Elroy, “it’s an enclosure.”

I would call it worse, but that would be my advocacy acting up.

Who’s to say this rhino isn’t perfectly content to have food and water provided without exerting the least bit of effort? Maybe explosive diarrhea is a small price to pay for a stable food supply?

Who’s to say Lucky, a few exhibits away, dancing tenderly from side to side before a foot-soak and scrub, wants to be free?

San Antonio resident Karrie Kern discovered her latent elephant obsession late in life through online activism. Originally from Puerto Rico*, she’d sought to help struggling marine mammals for years with online petitions and emails, but an alert about an African elephant named “Tusker” in December 2007 captivated her and ultimately turned her to land whales for good.

With increasing human encroachment into historically isolated and government-protected lands, human-elephant conflicts are on the rise across Africa. Tusker was one of those that had become “too humanized,” Kern said. A dim-witted tourist handed the elephant a death sentence when he introduced the six-ton earth-shaker to oranges. “He definitely loved oranges. Had a passion for them and would do anything for them,” Kern said.

To get at the exotic fruits, Tusker crashed a New Year’s Eve party in Kariba, Zimbabwe last year. Over several hours of confusion, a group of teenagers rolled oranges under nearby cars to watch the fruit-lusting elephant move the vehicles to get his treats. At some point the novelty wore off. People began to throw beer bottles and firecrackers at Tusker. One got into a car and began to ram the elephant in the legs, Kern said.

Needless to say, after the ordeal, most believed the animal was not long for this world. Elephants who repeatedly tangle with people are typically put down. Tusker had raided tents for oranges before. To prevent the killing, Kern and others got 4,000 signatures in an online petition to have Tusker moved to a nearby sanctuary instead. The petition had no effect. Tusker was killed on January 7.

The death affected Kern profoundly.

“I have to say it was the hardest thing in the world for me. It was like I had lost my best friend. I don’t know how to explain it,” Kerns said. “I couldn’t understand how we lost this animal. It didn’t make sense to me.”

She networked with the director of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, becoming within a few months their unpaid U.S. representative. Since that time, 18 more elephants have been killed in Zimbabwe.

Then came increasing reports of intimidation and beatings of political rivals by current President Robert Mugabe leading up to a cancelled election. People kept telling Kern she had picked the worst country in Africa to focus on conservation.

Yet, even in the midst of political violence, there were successes. As she labored with Zimbabwean politicians and United Nations representatives, poachers responsible for sneaking into a captive breeding operation and killing three critically endangered black rhinos were caught and sentenced to 20 years in prison. A later sting operation utilizing local police, parks employees, the army, and
secret-service officers flushed out another group of potential poachers at the Imire Game Reserve.

Before long, this woman who had never set foot in Africa was being invited to speak to San Anto protestors on Lucky’s behalf. First, she would have to meet Lucky for herself.

At the San Antonio Zoo, the recently completed $12-million Africa Live expansion is the big news. Phase One’s improvements include a hippo house with underwater views, recreated African “market,” gift shop (with scenic hippo overlook), and rentable banquet room. Phase Two will bring more primates, hunting dogs, big lizards, and an elephant sculpture. The third and final phase, expected to eat up $17 million or more, will include “black and white rhino exhibits, an expanded elephant yard, gazelle and dik dik,” according to the zoo’s annual report.

Lucky, an obviously Asian elephant, doesn’t fit into those plans.

Still, SA Zoo Director Steve McCusker says Lucky will not be sent to a 2,700-acre Tennessee sanctuary as protestors from VOICE for Animals, Wildlife Rescue, and Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force want. She’s happy here, McCusker says. She’s perfectly healthy, and besides, she doesn’t like other elephants.

“The plan is to get one or more Asian elephants, which is not as easy as it sounds,” McCusker says. “Then, when the time is right, move those animals out so we can get in there and do some total Phase 3 construction. When that’s completed, we’ll bring elephants back, but they’ll be Africans.”

Either there is heavy make-up on the agenda or this little lady will be leaving San Antonio one way or another in a few years.

“We are really not certain how all this will work out,” McCusker said in a follow-up email.

McCusker, who also sits on the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Elephant Taxon Advisory Group making policy recommendations aimed at ensuring the elephant’s survival on the planet, is anxious to launch a full-scale African elephant breeding program. The AZA is the leading accrediting organization in this country for zoos and aquariums.

“We’re going to do three times as much space, three times as many elephants,” he said. Either the zoo will keep a bull and several “cows” to breed, or they could opt to be a holding center for multiple males.

Captive breeding, he insists, will “have to happen on a much larger scale, because elephants are running out of room in Africa and Asia.” They aren’t the only ones.

A landmark of an article published in 1972 challenged some of our basic assumptions about zoos, chiefly that zoo-goers were more educated about wildlife than non zoo-goers. Author Robert Sommers also delved into some societal observations about our own species. “One of the most depressing aspects of a visit to the zoo is the amount of petty sadism and exhibitionism displayed by the visitors,” Sommers wrote in Natural Science just before positing that “the sight of caged animals does not engender respect for animals.”

The very fact these non-human animals are fenced in, while visitors dawdle in flip-flops, sipping on jumbo-sized, corn-sweetened beverages, often reinforces some of the worst assumptions about what it means to be the planet’s (separate) (superior) dominant predator. Thank your thumb but curse the dumb luck.

Due to our overwhelming success, evidenced in our exploding populations that have rocketed from under a billion 2,000 years ago to 6.5 billion today, the world is burning. We don’t need Al Gore to trot out the now-infamous hockey-stick graphs to know this. We can look to our fellow passengers.

Biologists searching the fossil record place the long-range extinction rates on the planet at about two species per year. However, since just 1800 the world has lost about 50,000 unique species of plants, birds, and mammals, according to a team headed by one of the world’s foremost biologists, E.O. Wilson. It’s being called the Sixth Mass Extinction. And the pace is quickening.

Last fall, the World Conservation Union declared that “life on earth is disappearing.” The world’s top predators issued a generally dismissive shrug in response. There has been plenty of international bickering, rising food and gas prices, and conscience-numbing entertainments to keep homo sapiens sapiens from fretting too deeply about our extended family. Last year, the WCU’s “red list” of threatened species grew by almost 200 species, to a whooping 16,306. That’s one of every four mammals, one in eight birds, a third of all amphibians, and nearly three-fourths of the planet’s plants.

In the politically and ecologically shifting landscapes in Asia and Africa, this transformation has caught elephants in the eye of the storm. African elephants are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act; fewer in number, Asian elephants are considered endangered.

Lucky can never return to the wild jungles from which she came. She is also past her prime for use as breeding stock under some conservation regime. So, what to do?

At a recent benefit dinner hosted by the VOICE for Animals, Kern and Elroy offer the sanctuary alternative. They walked the audience through their long list of concerns: lack of space, the compacted flooring, lack of companionship, an algae-filled pool, possible foot infections, and a growth on the back of her thigh.

“Statistically speaking — and I’m not saying this to scare you — Lucky is running out of time,” she said. “She needs to be somewhere where her feet can touch grass for once.”

McCusker’s retorts to the myriad concerns of the various groups (he calls them “animal extremists”) are dull and direct. “The people we get those letters from only know what they’ve been told to say. They don’t know anything about elephants,” he says. “I don’t think any of those things exist. In fact, she gets much more attention now then she did when we had two and three elephants just ’cause people are in touch with her more. She gets bathed every day. She’s spoiled rotten.”

Wouldn’t she be happier in wide-open country with trees to knock down, watering holes to wallow in, fellow elephants to lock trunks with?

“Absolutely not,” McCusker insists. “Because she’s set in her ways. Because she’s old in elephant terms. The stress, the trauma, I don’t think will be rectified by going down there in a whole new area, whole new setting, whole new group of animals, whole new group of people.”

This is where he loses me. During my time at Wildlife Rescue, I witnessed many animals that had been kept in captivity for their whole lives happily experiencing an open-door environment for the first time — black bears that had been kept in dark crates for years, monkeys that had never been outside of a research lab. I saw them discover grass, trees, and clouds. Even the most traumatized or human-dependent animals adjust; their instinctual minds in a flash subvert years of conditioning and training.

In an effort to understand Lucky’s situation, I sought to interview the staff that actually work with Lucky and have undoubtedly become deeply attached to her. The public-relations officer said such interviews would “interfere with the performance of their job duties.” Despite a long history of captive elephants dying of foot-related ailments, McCusker says zoos have improved and that Lucky’s pen is sufficient. The AZA, perhaps unsurprisingly, appears to back him up. A recent AZA survey of elephants at their accredited zoos found the average health rating of 284 elephants examined was 8.74 on a 10-point scale.

Still, it hasn’t gotten the zoo off of In Defense of Animals’ “Worst Zoos in America” list.

Elroy, who has been meeting with city leaders with Kern to discuss Lucky’s conditions, summed up the gulf still distancing animals rights groups from even the best zoos.

“They’re not concerned with the individual animal,” he said. “This has been a huge argument I’ve had with the AZA over the years. They say they work for the greater good of the species, that the individual animal doesn’t matter in the process. Well, we think they do.”

There are not many years left for Lucky. Her former companions, Alport, Jenny, and Missy died before or close to her age, though a full life would have offered another 10 or 20 years to any of them.

When Kern finally met Lucky before VOICE’s “Motherless Day Rally” at the zoo, she was struck by what she termed a “lack of life.”

“When I walked around the corner and saw what she had I was like, ‘Oh, my god. This is unacceptable,” Kern said.

“In a perfect world, she could go home. It’s not gonna happen. So what do you do? Do you leave her in this place where she’s gawked at? Or do you put her in a place where people actually care about her. To go knock down a tree if she wants. To go swim.”

If San Antonio decides to release Lucky to a sanctuary, for the first time in 47 years she could experience Gaia’s own greens and forge her own trail. For any creature confined for as long as Lucky has been, it’s not an insignificant opportunity. That there are no long-term plans for the elephant who dutifully provided “piggy-backs” for untold thousands of San Antonians should stick deeply in our collective conscience. 

But McCusker knows a more seditious challenge would follow the seemingly innocuous move to a sanctuary. After all, if the zoo isn’t right for Lucky now, in the twilight of her years, when was it? •

Investigate Lucky's conditions with Wildlife Rescue's Don Elroy.

Zoo Director Steve McCusker says Lucky has 'Never been happier'.

* Kerns was originally identified as being born in Costa Rica. Corrected 7/31/08.

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