It’s Safari Day at the San Antonio Zoo: a hot, summer morning when simply walking in the heat leaves sweat dripping down my back, but the zoo is filled with eager families. There’s a wide list of activities planned and it also happens to be Uma the hippo’s birthday. A cluster of children are writing birthday messages to her on the glass.
I pass by the golden lion tamarin, a New World monkey native to Brazil, asleep on his side, oblivious to onlookers taking photos. I also see a cheetah, an African feline renowned as the fastest land animal on the planet, hidden beneath the welcome shade of its enclosed habitat. The dik-dik, a small South African antelope and long my favorite animal, stands small, but proud, chomping away at its mid-morning meal.
I finally make my way to the enclosure holding Lucky, the zoo’s last living Asian elephant. At 54 years old, Lucky stands stoic, with a blank stare. She makes repetitive lunge movements towards the right side of her habitat for about 15 minutes. I watch and wonder if Lucky is losing it in old age, but a friendly volunteer approaches and offers an explanation.
“It’s almost 11:30 a.m., and she knows it’s time for her demonstration,” the volunteer says. “She’s getting ready.”
Lucky has lived at the San Antonio Zoo since she was two years old. Elephants are highly socialized animals who live in herds in the wild . Lucky has had several companions over the years, but resisted the company of other elephants. The zoo’s other elephants have died, as was the case with Boo, or have been sent off to live at other zoos.
The volunteer said Lucky now “prefers social interaction with humans rather than the other elephants. It’s all she knows.”
I observe Lucky performs tricks for the growing crowd of people around her. She picks up various heavy objects with her trunk, and shows an amazing memory and ability to understand what is being asked of her by her trainer, Kelsey. It’s difficult not to marvel at her.
Boo passed away in March 2013 at the age of 59. Lucky probably will die, too, sometime in the next few years. Average life span in the wild, where Asian elephants are highly endangered, is 60 years.
A newly enforced rule issued by the Association of Zoos and Aquarium mandates that zoos with fewer than three elephants in their facility must add to the group or move these large mammals by September 2016. The rule took effect in 2011 as part of the Standards for Elephant Management and Care, but new requirements call for zoos to hold a minimum of three females, two males, or three elephants of mixed gender.
“The San Antonio Zoo is not ignoring any AZA rule,” wrote Rob Vernon, spokesperson for the AZA in an email. “The Social Considerations Standards for elephants as part of our AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care (take) effect of September 1, 2016, so San Antonio Zoo is not ignoring AZA rules.”
A recent article in the San Antonio Express News reported that Zoo Director Steve McCusker does not intend to relocate Lucky, nor is he planning on adding elephants while she is alive because of her social discomfort.
Vernon declined to comment on McCusker’s stance.
“The San Antonio Zoo is complying with all of AZA’s Standards for Elephant Management and Care,” he said.
Elephants require wide spaces to roam, and access to water, and under normal circumstances, naturally seek the company of other elephants.
In 2006, the death of 48-year-old elephant Gita at Los Angeles Zoo sparked a national debate on whether or not large mammals should be kept in confinement. By that point, almost a dozen zoos had shut down their elephant exhibits. There are about 27 elephants currently living in captivity in Texas zoos.
In 1914, Colonel George W. Brackenridge kept buffalo, elk, deer, monkeys, a pair of lions, and four bears on acreage that is now Brackenridge Park. That land and private collection eventually became the San Antonio Zoo. The zoo recently celebrated its centennial, or “Zootennial.” With that came the addition of a new Zoo Plaza, a carousel, and a restaurant.
Zoos offer people the opportunity to experience animals they otherwise might never see in the wild, and serve as important conservation and breeding facilities for endangered species. But in an age when children are a quick Internet search or cable television program away from observing animals in the wild, the role of zoos as home to large mammals kept captive in close quarters has become the subject of growing debate.
The San Antonio Zoo recently earned the top spot on the “Worst Zoos for Elephants” list on the In Defense of Animals group page in 2013. It was the sixth time in 10 years that the local zoo was tagged by the IDA.
In Defense of Animals is an international organization dedicated to protecting the welfare, habitats and rights of animals. The organization fights for the birthrights of animals, much like the birthrights humans claim themselves.
A former zoo employee, who chose to remain anonymous, said various factors determine the care Lucky receives.
“The zookeepers are extremely passionate about what they do, and they’re not here to torture animals,” the former zoo worker said. “But with the economy, and lack of awareness of San Antonio citizens, the funds and maintenance of certain exhibits fall short.”
A May 2013 National Geographic article by Jordan Carlton explored two sides of the elephants-in-zoos debate. Carlton interviewed both Jim Naelitz, career elephant trainer and curator, and former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science Dr. Michael Hutchins. Hutchins organized and led the AZA Elephant Planning Initiative in 1999.
Hutchins said elephants require more space than traditionally allotted in urban zoos.
“I believe that captive elephants require considerably more space and exercise than they have traditionally been given by urban zoo designers,” Hutchins said, “but there has been considerable progress in the way that elephants are exhibited at many zoos.Hutchins said most elephants are “energetically conservative” and don’t necessarily need the wide open space in zoos since many of their critical needs, like food, water, and mates are readily available.
“Of course, in the case of these highly social animals, perhaps the most critical source of stimulation is the presence of (other elephants),” he said. “The presence of young animals in the group appears to be particularly important, as they are often the focus of group activities. This is why it is so critical that elephant holding facilities are able to maintain larger and relatively stable groups of adult females and their young, and this will require larger exhibits and holding areas.”
The San Antonio Zoo certainly has the room for more than one elephant. As I depart Lucky’s exhibit, I leave behind smiling children and families.
The IDA’s online petition calling for Lucky’s release to a zoo animal retirement farm and closure of the elephant exhibition was launched in January and now has 11,702 signatures, but that has not swayed local zoo administrators. The zoo’s spokesman indicated zoo leaders believe Lucky is an elephant with “unique preferences” and will fare better in solitary captivity.
The zoo has plans to renovate the elephant habitat and acquire three young African elephants after Lucky dies.
*Featured/top stories: Balancing act: Lucky starts part two of the demonstration. Part one involves one of the trainers sharing quick facts about Lucky and elephants in general. Photo by Jackie Calvert.