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We Love Lucky

An Analysis of Accusations about Lucky, the Asian Elephant, and San Antonio Zoo

FACT CHECK:

The outpouring of concern for San Antonio Zoo’s Asian elephant, Lucky, proves that the beloved55-year-old is exceptionally good at her job. Thanks to Lucky, elephants are in the news. She is a true ambassador for her species, and the ongoing dialogue about her life has serious implications for the future not just of elephants in zoos, but for all endangered creatures currently living in the wild. One Green Planet has published an article that overlooks the truth in an effort to promote an anti-zoo agenda. The reality is, our planet is experiencing extinction rates between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. The actions and in actions of man are mostly to blame.One of the thousands of examples of species currently in peril is elephants. Poachers slaughter one elephant every 15 minutes––that’s 96 elephants every single day. The fact is, San Antonio Zoo is part of and committed to an international effort to protect, care for and rebuild the world’s elephant population, not harm them in any way. This is a conversation far too important not to rely on facts.

The photo

The article immediately misleads readers with a lead photo that suggests the San Antonio Zoo chains elephants. The picture actually portrays a keeper inspecting a GPS “wristband” that the zoo used as part of a study conducted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited (AZA) to learn more about the movements and habits of elephants.

The author

The author, a cosmetologist who specializes in the study and application of beauty treatments such as hair styling, skin care, cosmetics, manicures, and electrology, is woefully unqualified to accurately assess the well-being of any zoo animal.

Gross inaccuracies in the author’s blog suggest it is also extremely unlikely that she has actually ever been to the San Antonio Zoo. Instead of introducing any new or specific information, the article is a simple recycling of propaganda already circulated by anti-zoo extremist groups.

Now, a comprehensive fact-check of the article’s content:

ARTICLE:

Animals in zoos are put on display for entertainment purposes first and foremost. The vast majority of the animals we see at the zoo are born in captivity, making it virtually impossible for them ever to be released back into the wild. Their environments are, more often than not, an inadequate facsimile for what would meet their needs in nature, lacking the types of social structure and enrichment vital to their well-being.

THE FACTS

 

According to the AZA:

• In 2012, zoo-based institutions provided over $160 million in support of approximately 2,700 conservation projects in more than 115 countries. Additionally, zoo and aquarium scientists contribute to hundreds of conservation, biology, and veterinary science publications.

 

• In 2013, zoos attracted more than 181 million visitors. Approximately 50 million visitors were children, making accredited zoos and aquariums some of the best places for families to connect with nature and each other.

 

• Zoos and aquariums are leaders in the protection of endangered species. Twenty years ago, AZA established the Species Survival Plan Program™ (SSP), which is a long-term plan involving conservation breeding, habitat preservation, public education, field conservation, and supportive research to ensure survival for many of the planet’s threatened and endangered species. Currently, AZA members are involved in 319 SSPs working on behalf of 590 species. The very fact that “the vast majority of the animals we see at the zoo are born in captivity” is testimony that these programs are working, and that they are creating sustainable populations of zoo-born animals that have limited needs for removing animals from the wild.

ARTICLE:

This particular zoo, has had a spot on In Defense of Animals’ (IDA) Top 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants six times in ten years. This year they’re ranked at number one. They were also the only American zoo listed as one of the World’s Worst Zoos by the Global Post in 2010.

THE FACTS

 

• In Defense of Animals (IDA) does not approve of any elephant in any zoo whatsoever. Their lists of “Top Ten Worst…” often include many of the most reputable zoos in the United States. The IDA is fundamentally anti-zoo and anti-pet ownership.

 

• The Global Post article simply re-hashed the arguments made by IDA. No one from the Global Post (an internet “news” outlet) ever visited San Antonio Zoo.

ARTICLE:

Over 9,000 animals, representing 750 different species are kept in captivity at the San Antonio Zoo. […] The entire zoo only takes up 56 total acres, meaning their animal population of 9,000, is crammed into a very tight space.

THE FACTS 

 

  • To understand why the San Antonio Zoo’s facilities are AZA-approved, it is important to know the breakdown of species at the San Antonio Zoo. More than 6,600 of the animals at the Zoo are fish and invertebrates. Another almost 1,000 animals are bats.

• About 850 reptiles and amphibians live at the zoo, along with approximately 330 mammals (excluding the bats), and more than 1,500 birds.

• San Antonio Zoo was the first zoo to successfully hatch and raise critically endangered Whooping cranes. Such breeding is a sign of thriving animals that are actually out-thriving their species in the wild.

• San Antonio Zoo has partnered with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to successfully return Whooping Cranes, Attwater Prairie Chickens, and Puerto Rican Crested Toads to the wild––all of which are listed as endangered.

ARTICLE:

Prior to her death in 2012 of kidney failure, Gertrude the rhino, languished in a rusty enclosure that was too small for her, lacking in shade or a mud wallow-a necessary item for her species. Her night quarters were no better, containing compact and unnatural substrata for her to lie down on.

 

THE FACTS 

 

Please note: many of the following corrections would be clearly evident to anyone who has ever visited San Antonio Zoo.

• Gertrude, the white rhino, living with two other rhinos at the time in the same allegedly “too small” enclosure, was the first white rhino to give birth in North America. She gave birth twice more in that same enclosure­­––again, evidence of a thriving animal.

•  When Gertrude died at 46-years-old of end-stage renal failure, there was only one older white rhino in North America. In fact, of the 706 white rhinos alive worldwide at that time, she was tied for the fourth oldest (a distinction that she shared with eight others). The median expected age for white rhinos is 34 years old.

•  Gertrude’s enclosure most definitely had a mud wallow, regularly maintained by Animal Care Specialists, in which she partook as she chose.

•  Gertrude’s enclosure also featured a shade tarp, the shade of tree adjacent to her enclosure, and the shade provided by her “night quarters,” to which she had access during the day if she chose.

•  The floor to Gertrude’s “night quarters” was outfitted with rubber mats to cushion her should she choose to lie down inside.

•  Gertrude was not confined to her night quarters except in cases of extreme weather (for her safety) or while her enclosure was being cleaned by Animal Care Specialists (for their safety). For the vast majority of the time, she was allowed access both inside and outside, so that she could choose the conditions that best suited her preferences.

ARTICLE:

Sam and Gina, a black leopard pair, both passed away in 2010 after only one year at the zoo. Transferred in 2009, after being rescued from a private owner, the zoo gave little details about the cause of death for either animal.

THE FACTS 

 

• Gina died of an acute idiopathic meningoencephalitis, which appeared to be viral in nature. At least eight pathologists reviewed this case per the Zoo’s request, and the Zoo also sent out numerous samples but could not determine an etiology.

ARTICLE:

Officially, the zoo stated that Gina had passed away from an illness. Sam appeared distraught and began showing stereotypic behaviors, or zoochosis, following her death-likely due to the sudden disappearance of his companion. He died himself a month later, with no statement from the zoo at all.

THE FACTS 

 

• Sam had an unknown underlying cardiomyopathy related to an arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, similar to the tragedies that strike human athletes. The condition is the leading case of sudden death in young athletes who are otherwise healthy until, one day; they fall prey to this deadly heart muscle disease and die at a sports practice or game.

ARTICLE:

Lucky lives in a half-acre enclosure with minimal shade and a hard concrete surface known to cause orthopedic issues in elephants. She has also been living in solitude for the majority of her time in the zoo.

THE FACTS

 

These are absolute falsehoods, as would be evident to anyone who has ever visited San Antonio Zoo.

• Lucky has access to shade produced by two umbrella-like structures, as well as a triangular sunshade that adjoins them. The 40’ tall cliff face that forms the back walls of her enclosure casts shade in the afternoon, and Lucky also has access to her barn.

• Lucky has lived at San Antonio Zoo since 1962, and has had elephant companionship for 47 out of her 53 years there. She was never alone until the passing of Alport in 2007. While she showed absolutely no distress due to being alone after Alport’s passing, the zoo immediately embarked on a search for a companion elephant, which are not easily found. Boo arrived in 2010 and passed in 2013, from the first case of leukemia ever documented in an elephant. Again, Lucky has shown no sign of distress due to being alone, as she has been since. However, the Zoo continues to search for a suitable companion for Lucky––an extensive and time-consuming process.

• Lucky’s enclosure is not made of concrete. It is composed of many tons of sand, gravel, and topsoil, in which grass has been planted. Lucky’s enclosure had included grass for years, but a recently ended drought killed it.

• The stalls of Lucky’s barn have, for many years, been covered with a sealed, rubberized flooring. Tons of sand are spread 6” deep on the floor of her stalls during the colder months, in which there is a greater likelihood that she would be spending more time in the barn.

ARTICLE:

When her companion, Alport, died after sustaining a serious orthopedic injury in 2007, Lucky was left alone for the next three years. During this time the zoo looked for other companions for her but no other zoo was willing to send an elephant to San Antonio (likely because of their reputation). That changed in 2010 when an elephant named Queenie, later renamed Boo, was rescued from a private owner and sent by the USDA to live as a companion for Lucky.

THE FACTS

 

• Identifying a potential companion for Lucky is a painstakingly detailed process. Given Lucky’s age at the time (47) and her demeanor (more affiliated with her human companions than other elephants), the identification of other elephants as potential companions for Lucky was further limited by their health histories, as well as availability.

• The family that had provided Boo a home long before her circus years (during which Queenie became her stage name) named her Boo because of the game they used to play with her.

• Boo was determined to be a good candidate as a companion for Lucky and was sent to San Antonio Zoo by her then-owner under the advice of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)¬¬––further verification of the widespread respect for San Antonio Zoo’s elephant program.

• San Antonio Zoo has an excellent reputation among its peers. As an AZA-accredited institution, San Antonio Zoo adheres to a rigorous accreditation process that exceeds the standards required by the USDA for other licensed zoos.

ARTICLE:

However, Queenie passed away in March of 2013, and the San Antonio Zoo currently has no plans to either relinquish Lucky to a sanctuary, or to provide her with another companion. The zoo contends that Lucky is too old to be moved to a sanctuary, and insists that keeping her in an inadequate environment, with no others of her kind to satisfy her needs for socialization, is the only choice for her. Elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild, meaning Lucky could have 20 more years of miserable solitude ahead of her.

THE FACTS

 

• The median lifespan for a female Asian elephant is 46.9 years. Lucky is 55 years old, the demographic equivalent of a 92-year-old American female.

• To emphasize that elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild is functionally the same as saying that humans can live to 116 years. Yes, it happens—but it is exceedingly rare. While the San Antonio Zoo hopes that Lucky lives for many more years, the Zoo is confident that she is neither miserable nor in solitude.

• Lucky’s behavior is indicative of an elephant who is at ease with her environment, which is made interesting and engaging by her Animal Care Specialists, who provide her with behavioral enrichment, physical exercise and mental stimulation through a positive reinforcement training program and a variety of mechanical and physical devices.

• Time and time again, Lucky has shown the Zoo’s experts and her Animal Care Specialists that her preference for socialization is best met through people, not other elephants. She receives over four hours of direct hands-on attention from a staff of seven people every day. The balance of her day is spent in her yard searching for treats, bathing in her pool, or just playing with her enrichment toys.

ARTICLE:

Zoo director Steve McCusker says, “She’s never been kind of a herd elephant. She’s always been kind of a weird elephant that would rather be alone or with people than other elephants. That’s really the philosophy and science behind why we have kept her.” Elephants are highly social animals, which makes this assertion even more questionable. Lucky shows signs of zoochosis, which often occurs when animals are stressed or live in enclosures containing little stimulation. explain away Lucky’s stereotypic behavior as excitement for meals.

THE FACTS

 

• As has been repeatedly reported in response to this misguided concern, Lucky prefers to satisfy her needs for socialization through her interactions with her human caretakers. Over her 53 years in residence at the San Antonio Zoo, her Animal Care Specialists have seen that Lucky rarely interacts socially with other elephants.

• The term “zoochosis” was coined in 1992 by Bill Travers (co-founder of the Born Free Foundation) to characterize the “obsessive, repetitive behaviors exhibited by animals kept in captivity.” Persons observing Lucky’s behavior will note that she is engaged with her environment and makes good use of her surroundings as she seeks out food, bathes herself with either water or sand, plays with her enrichment, and interacts with her caring Animal Care Specialists.

• Lucky is very aware of her schedule and that of the Animal Care Specialists. Like a child or adult shuffling his or her feet while waiting in line, Lucky will occasionally sway in anticipation of a big meal or being brought inside her barn.

ARTICLE:

With antiquated water systems, the zoo pumped 707 million gallons of water from the Edwards Aquifer in 2012. To put this in perspective, that is 3 times the amount pumped by neighboring Seaworld San Antonio- a marine park! They’re also the largest discharger of pollution on the river in San Antonio, dumping 2 million gallons of water per day used in the animal pens and contaminated with E.Coli at levels 135 times higher than what the EPA considers safe. This impacts not only the people who come into contact with this water, but the fish and wildlife in the river.

THE FACTS

 

• The median lifespan for a female Asian elephant is 46.9 years. Lucky is 55 years old, the demographic equivalent of a 92-year-old American female.

• To emphasize that elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild is functionally the same as saying that humans can live to 116 years. Yes, it happens—but it is exceedingly rare. While the San Antonio Zoo hopes that Lucky lives for many more years, the Zoo is confident that she is neither miserable nor in solitude.

• Lucky’s behavior is indicative of an elephant who is at ease with her environment, which is made interesting and engaging by her Animal Care Specialists, who provide her with behavioral enrichment, physical exercise and mental stimulation through a positive reinforcement training program and a variety of mechanical and physical devices.

• Time and time again, Lucky has shown the Zoo’s experts and her Animal Care Specialists that her preference for socialization is best met through people, not other elephants. She receives over four hours of direct hands-on attention from a staff of seven people every day. The balance of her day is spent in her yard searching for treats, bathing in her pool, or just playing with her enrichment toys.

ARTICLE:

The San Antonio Zoo repeatedly claims that they don’t have the money it would take to update their re-use and conservation systems, or to update the outdated animal enclosures.

THE FACTS

 

• San Antonio Zoo has invested more than $55 million into its city-owned property to upgrade infrastructure and exhibits in the last 15 years alone.

• The Zoo has not made claims about lacking funds. As a non-profit 501(c)(3) entity that generates almost all of its own revenue, it is obligated to operate in a fiscally responsible way.

• The Zoo is continually improving its facilities and is always looking toward the next phase of new exhibit construction. Relatively small-scale renovations are continually in process.

• When the Zoo invests by adding amenities, such as restaurants, it allows the non-profit to earn revenue that is a vital net positive for the future.

ARTICLE:

The bottom line is, animals here-and in any zoo-live lives that are very different than the ones that they would lead in the wild.

THE FACTS

 

• Correct. The zoo’s animals are not poached, starving, or losing their habitats. They are fed, cared for, receive world-class veterinarian care, and serve as ambassadors for their cousins in the wild.

• On average, poachers kill one elephant every 15 minutes––that’s 96 elephants per day. This data is not just from last month, not just last year—but over the past three years. In fact, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calculates that more than half of the Asian elephant population has been lost in the last 60 – 75 years. Even worse, two-thirds of the African elephant population has disappeared since 1980. Life in the wild is far from safe and secure.

• Lucky’s presence at San Antonio Zoo helps to educate guests about these facts and will hopefully motivate them to take steps to conserve elephants.

ARTICLE:

In zoos they, along with other animals, find themselves in an enclosure made of concrete. […] In the wild, elephants enjoy rubbing up against and knocking down trees, something that a zoo discourages due to the expense of replacing trees in an artificial habitat.

THE FACTS

 

• Just as Lucky does not live in a concrete enclosure (please see above), none of the animals at San Antonio Zoo live on concrete.

• Animal Care Specialists create daily enrichments for some of its animals. San Antonio Zoo also has a designated member of management whose entire job is to create new ways of enriching the daily lives of animals.

• Lucky can rub and scratch against the tall, wooden umbrella-like structures in her yard, which she does with great regularity.

• There are also many large stumps and logs within Lucky’s enclosure that are used as part of her enrichment, which Lucky picks up, moves or even peel them apart with her trunk. Animal Care Specialists have often found that Lucky has completely re-arranged the furniture overnight.

ARTICLE:

Profoundly social animals, elephants select a social group in the wild and stick close to them for life.

THE FACTS

 

• Lucky has lived at San Antonio Zoo since she was a 2-year-old toddler. She has no knowledge of, or relationship with, the expectations of a wild elephant. For centuries, men have domesticated Asian elephants. And, in that regard, Lucky is far from being one of her wild counterparts.

• AZA stipulates that animals may be moved to ensure the genetic longevity of a species. These decisions are made through species coordinators who have detailed records of each animal, its bloodline, and possible future mates.

• This point contradicts the author’s proposal of moving Lucky into an existing herd––a point that San Antonio Zoo has made for years.

ARTICLE:

One such instance occurred in 2001 when Gertrude’s mate Fred was loaned out from the San Antonio Zoo to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. His presence upset the existing social structure, resulting in a fight that resulted in his death.

THE FACTS

 

• Combat and aggression are innate social behaviors that take place in nature as well. Just because a wild rhinoceros may not have a name does not mean that it would go through life without suffering serious injury or death from negative social interactions.

ARTICLE:

Elephants in the wild can walk up to 30 miles per day. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) minimum space requirement for an elephant in captivity is only 5400 square feet outside and 600 square feet for males or females with calves inside. Without calves, females are only required to have 400 square feet indoors. While many zoos exceed this ridiculous number, it isn’t by enough to satisfy the animal’s incredible needs for space to roam and wander.

THE FACTS

 

• Elephants in the wild may walk up to 30 miles in a day if necessary. In order to survive, the search for food and water will make some elephant travel appreciable distances. However, those elephants for which food and water are readily available will be perfectly content to stay in a much more limited location. Like any other animal, they will work no harder than they have to.

• The size of an elephant’s enclosure is far less important than the elephants’ use of it. Lucky’s yard is meticulously raked every day. When a guest looks closely at the sand in her yard, they will see footprints over its entire expanse.

ARTICLE:

Gorillas also see a large difference in their activity in captivity vs. in the wild, leading to issues with obesity in captive gorillas. Where they’d otherwise be playing and looking around for items to build their new nest each night, gorillas in captivity have a nest supplied for them. Lethargy and prolonged periods of sitting result, which are not observed in gorillas allowed to live outside of a zoo.

THE FACTS

 

• San Antonio Zoo does not have gorillas. Obviously, this piece is about an anti-zoo agenda for which San Antonio Zoo simply became prey.

San Antonio Zoo will never make decisions about Lucky’s life based on what may be most comforting for humans. Lucky’s future is not a human issue. It is a Lucky issue. She is neither miserable, nor is she in solitude.

Those who know her best believe she deserves to live out her golden years in comfort and peace. While her herd of human caretakers may not be traditional, it is the herd Lucky needs. A proudly accredited member of both the AZA and ZAA, San Antonio Zoo is regulated, governed, and inspected by local, state, and federal agencies, including the USDA and USFW, among others.

San Antonio Zoo hopes that all of the attention Lucky has received will inspire more people to join the vital mission to build a safer, wilder future for every species through conservation, education, and protection.