Lucky the elephant at the San Antonio Zoo. Creative commons
Lucky the elephant at the San Antonio Zoo. Creative commons

The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against the San Antonio Zoo on Tuesday, criticizing the treatment of Lucky, the zoo’s last remaining Asian elephant. The suit alleges that Lucky has been physically and emotionally hurt by unsuitable living conditions that violate the Endangered Species Act.

Lucky has been the subject of national attention and heated disagreement between zoo officials who believe Lucky has always been treated humanely and in its old age prefers solitude to unfamiliar elephants, and animal rights advocates here and elsewhere that believe Lucky should have been moved years ago to an outdoor park designed for aging large zoo animals to live out their days with other animals in a natural setting far from zoos and urban captivity.

Local zoo officials created to counter the negative publicity and to answer frequently asked questions and concerns from visitors. 

Lucky has lived at the San Antonio Zoo since 1962, and after 55 years, she has learned to adapt and ignore crowds by turning her back to them, said the ALDF. Her current living space includes a shallow pool, scant shade and a concrete ground that aggravates her arthritis. The space looks very different from the shady natural habitat of an Asian elephant from Thailand.

“It would be great to see her touch grass for the first time in more than 50 years,” said Karrie Kern, CEO and president of the locally-based nonprofit One World Conservation. The nonprofit has advocated for Lucky’s freedom in person and at since 2008, and will protest for Lucky again at the zoo on Saturday, Dec.6.

ALDF filed the suit on behalf of three San Antonians who have formed emotional attachments to Lucky over the years. The plaintiffs request that Lucky be transferred to a sanctuary, where she will be in an environment that closely mirrors her natural habitat and she would be able to interact with other Asian elephants.

Zoo officials were unavailable for comment at the time of publication, but have previously argued the importance of zoos to animal rights and conservation efforts worldwide.

“This is the evolution of zoos, and you’ve seen it, where animals were once on display and kind of a novelty,” said Tim Morrow, San Antonio Zoo CEO and executive director, during a press conference in November. Morrow went on to describe the zoo’s new approach to showcasing the animals, which include more space and more realistic habitats. The zoo’s ongoing Africa Live! expansion will feature animals from Africa engaging with each other in an open environment similar to an African savanna, though it’s not clear how the Asian elephant will fit into that vision.

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.
Balancing act: Lucky starts part two of a zoo demonstration. Part one involves one of the trainers sharing quick facts about Lucky and elephants in general. Photo by Jackie Calvert.

“Now it’s really a necessity to be working with these animals at zoos, where people can see them up close and personal and connect with them and then translate that to what’s happening in the wild, which is that many of these species are being wiped out,” said Morrow.

Several City Council members, including Joe Krier (D9) and former Councilwoman Elisa Chan, have suggested mediation sessions between the two groups. Local activists and conservation groups agreed to participate in a meeting, but zoo officials declined.

“I’m still hoping that there’s some kind of negotiation,” said Kern.“Trials can take a long time and I don’t know that she has that time. She’s on her last set of teeth.”

The suit’s plaintiffs have requested an injunction that would require the zoo to stop violating the law, which could be accomplished by moving Lucky to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Zoo officials have previously said that a move across the country would be physically and emotionally traumatic for an older elephant like Lucky.  

ALDF representatives and One World have been active in their pursuit of finding and providing quality living conditions for all endangered species, including Asian elephants, whose world population numbers less than 40,000.

“It’s an epidemic across the globe, it’s not just San Antonio,” said Kern.”If we are successful, this would open the door for every endangered species in the United States, not just Lucky. We have to try to do everything we can for her well-being.”

Top Image: A close-up of Lucky the elephant at the San Antonio Zoo in 2013. Creative commons.

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Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.