Lonely Zoo Elephant Hasn't Had A Friend In 11 Years
“She spends her days alone in a glass cage where the walls are painted with artificial trees” 💔
For Lucy the Asian elephant, life at the Edmonton Valley Zoo in Alberta, Canada, is as lonely as it gets.
Every day for Lucy is mostly the same. She stands in her barren concrete enclosure, behind a glass wall, as visitors watch her slowly pace around.
She has a tire hanging from the ceiling as a toy and no pool or mud bath to play in outside. And it’s been over a decade since Lucy last saw another elephant.
“She spends her days alone in a glass cage where the walls are painted with artificial trees,” Mary-Ann Holm, cofounder of Lucy’s Edmonton Advocates’ Project (LEAP), told The Dodo. “The only trees she has access to are behind electric fencing, just out of reach.”
Lucy is 43 years old, and has been at the zoo since she was taken from the wild in 1977 as a calf. She was alone for many years, until the zoo brought in a young African elephant named Samantha for Lucy to “mother” in 1989.
Lucy and Samantha shared the same enclosure for 18 years. It was likely just as barren then — but they had each other. In 2007, the zoo sent Lucy’s only friend away to North Carolina on a breeding loan. Samantha was never brought back.
“It was quite devastating for her to go from having a companion, to suddenly being all alone again,” Holm said. “There are many photos of the two standing right next to each other, and holding trunks together. But the zoo claimed that Lucy didn’t like her, and that she [Lucy] is actually an antisocial elephant who prefers humans.”
Elephants are a social species through and through, and develop complex relationships with family and friends in the company of other elephants. Studies show how abnormal solitary life is for elephants — yet many zoos across the world force them to live like this.
In addition to her loneliness, Lucy suffers from various health issues caused by her life at the zoo, Holm said.
“She suffers from chronic arthritis, foot disease, obesity, stereotypy [repetitive, compulsive movements related to stress] and an undiagnosed respiratory condition,” Holm said. “The first two are the biggest cause of the premature death of zoo elephants.”
LEAP has been advocating for years to have Lucy sent to a sanctuary, but their calls have been ignored by zoo management and public officials who would have the power to arrange it.
Two elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. have already offered to take Lucy in, and celebrity Bob Barker has even said he’ll sponsor her travel costs.
The zoo says Lucy has a respiratory condition that would make traveling dangerous — but according to elephant expert and veterinarian Dr. Phillip Ensley, this could be eased if she didn’t live in such a cold climate.
In the wild, Asian elephants live in a tropical climate of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. During Alberta winters, temperatures can drop as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Dr. Ensley has stated our climate is likely the cause of her respiratory issues,” Holm said. “In the dead of winter, we’ll have a cold snap for weeks where Lucy will not see the light of day. Other times, she’s been taken outside for ‘walks’ in the snow. I have photos of her up to her knees in snow. With her arthritis and joint problems, I can’t imagine how painful that must be.”
In the warmer months, Lucy is sometimes walked around on the same asphalt paths that visitors use to walk throughout the zoo. The keeper with her always has a sharp tool called a bullhook in case Lucy strays from the path, Holm said.
“They keep her on the path because they don’t want her to grab branches off the trees or do any damage to the lawn,” Holm said. “On July 31, when it was in the 90s here, they had her walking on the asphalt and it was burning her feet.”
In addition to being paraded throughout the zoo, visitors can also pay to enter her indoor enclosure and “visit” her.
“There’s women holding babies and toddlers running around, and all I can wonder is what would happen to Lucy if she lashed out one day,” Holm said. “They [zoo and visitors] don’t seem to understand how dangerous and deadly elephants can be.”
While many locals don’t see any problem with Lucy’s living conditions, Holm and the other LEAP members hope they can change that with regular educational demonstrations throughout the community. If they can get more support locally, Holm said, then Lucy’s life could finally be changed for the better.
“The zoo says Lucy is an old elephant, but she’s only ‘getting old’ by zoo standards,” Holm said. “I’ve met one sanctuary elephant who is 89 years old, and numerous others in their 70s. By that stretch, she’s only middle-aged.”
Despite the lack of local support, Holm knows Lucy deserves nothing short of being retired to a sanctuary.
“Over the years we’ve been watching Lucy slowly decline and we’ve done almost everything we can to help her,” Holm said. “But we won’t give up.”