Edmonton, animal rights groups will fight in court over elephants future

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EDMONTON - The battle between animals rights group and the City of Edmonton erupted into a full-blown legal war Monday, and the elephant in the courtroom is named Lucy.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Zoocheck Canada filed a lawsuit contending that the 34-year-old Asian elephant is being treated inhumanely at the city-owned Valley Zoo in contravention of Alberta's Animal Protection Act.
Bring it on, countered city lawyer Steven Phipps, who said the fate of the beloved pachyderm is worth fighting over and the city will do what's necessary to protect her.
The animal-rights groups have been waging a public relations campaign to have Lucy moved out of the Valley Zoo and into an elephant sanctuary in the United States, enlisting the help of high-wattage celebrities including talk-show legend Bob Barker and Canadian-born Star Trek actor William Shatner.
Prominent Toronto-based lawyer Clayton Ruby said Monday that several world-renowned experts on elephants have studied Lucy's living conditions and are very concerned about her physical and mental health.
Ruby said the problem is that Lucy lives alone at the zoo, though elephants are social animals who need to live with their own kind to be happy.
"Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual for humans and it is distress, unnecessary distress, for Lucy," he said. "No matter how often the zoo may say it and affirm it, having a human animal keeper is not the same thing."
Dr. Phillip Densely, a former San Diego Zoo veterinarian, has filed an affidavit blaming conditions and standards of care for Lucy at the zoo for health problems including arthritis, pressure sores, obesity, irregular sleep and foot problems.
"In my opinion, Lucy's isolation from other elephants causes her to suffer unnecessary emotional pain," he said.
Dr. Joyce Pole, an elephant biologist who visited Lucy last September, said the elephant had little room to roam, something the creatures need to do to maintain their physical health and mental well being. She said Lucy was often kept inside her small barn due to cold temperatures in the winter.
"The consequence is that she is a young elephant in an old body. This causes her real privation and suffering," Poole said in her affidavit.
Phipps insisted Lucy has received the best possible care and suggested a move could kill her.
"They've made certain allegations that her current surroundings breach the Act," Phipps said. "Her current surroundings may not live up to their standards, but their standards aren't the legislative standards and it's an important distinction to draw."
The animal rights groups are only seeking a declaration that Lucy is in distress, but haven't told the court what kind of remedy they're seeking, Phipps said, suggesting that was an unusual omission.
"They are seeking one thing and one thing only, that Lucy be moved. However they haven't said that in their claim," he said.
He questioned why the groups are asking the courts to get involved when to his knowledge no formal complaint has been filed with the Edmonton Humane Society, which is empowered to investigate and lay charges under the Act.
He suggested that failing to follow the proper procedures for a complaint might mean the suit has no merit.
Julie Woodyer of Zoocheck Canada said she did call the humane society to complain but that her concerns were dismissed and the agency didn't properly investigate them.
Linda Cochrane, general manager of the city's community services division, acknowledged critics suggests the zoo wants to hang onto Lucy because it would reduce the number of visitors and revenues would drop.
But she said surveys show that red pandas and other animals with babies bring in many more visitors.
"Lucy is a big part of the zoo, there's no question," Cochrane said. "But to suggest that we don't want to move her because she would affect the attendance and the revenue is totally inappropriate in my mind."
Last year, the city called on Dr. James Oosterhuis, a San Diego veterinary consultant, to examine Lucy's and Cochrane said they're continuing to follow his recommendations to improve her health.
That includes giving her anti-inflammatories to relieve pain in her feet, putting the 4,300-kilogram elephant on a diet, hauling in extra sand and rubber mats to provide softer footing and examining the idea of providing Lucy with more space, Cochrane said. They're still trying to get to the bottom of her breathing problems.
Woodyer said some of the animal's foot and breathing problems became chronic years ago and officials are no closer to understanding why her breathing is obstructed.
"Our experts advise us that many of these problems, including the respiratory issue, were certainly caused by her care and the environment here and will continue to be a problem and deterioriate if she stays in this environment," she said.
Lisa Wathne, a spokeswoman with PETA, said since 1991, 14 zoos in North American have closed their elephant exhibits or announced plans to phase them out because they simply can't provide adequately for them in captivity.
"Of those zoos who have done so, they've cited the fact they can't provide enough space, enough companionship and many of them aren't in appropriate climates," she said.
Lucy's story is very similar to that of Maggie, an elephant at the Alaska Zoo who was also housed alone, Wathne said. She was eventually moved to sanctuary in California and thrived, she said.
"Lucy deserves the same."
The suit demands a response from the city by March 1, but Phipps said that's not a hard deadline for action and may result in another court date being set.

Organizations: Zoocheck Canada, Valley Zoo, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals San Diego Zoo Edmonton Humane Society PETA Alaska Zoo

Geographic location: Edmonton, California, Alberta United States San Diego

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  • Jill in mill valley
    July 29, 2011 - 13:38

    They need to get a few more veterinarians in there, just to be sure that the elephant is actually being treated badly. I would love to hear any followup to the case!