40 year old Asian elephant, Nicole. Courtesy of the San Antonio Zoo.
Nicole is a 40-year-old Asian elephant. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Zoo.

The San Antonio Zoo announced the arrival of a new, 40-year-old Asian elephant named Nicole Monday morning. Nicole, a retired circus elephant from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, will join Lucky, the 56-year-old Asian elephant who has received national attention in recent months after The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against the Zoo in December for improper treatment of Lucky.

(Read more: Lucky’s Future at San Antonio Zoo Now in the Courts)

Nicole, who is on loan from Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros., arrived this morning and is getting along well with Lucky, according to SA Zoo CEO Tim Morrow.

In the midst of the controversy surrounding Lucky, animal rights activists are wondering why the Zoo decided to bring another elephant into the mix. Karrie Kern, CEO and president of locally-based nonprofit One World Conservation, said she is in “an absolute, complete utter state of shock.”

OWC has been fighting this campaign (for Lucky) for almost eight years,” Kern said. “For us, Lucky is the first priority, above anything else. What I want for her, what somebody else wants for her — that is irrelevant. It’s what’s in her best interest, and we feel that her best interest is for her to be moved.”

“(The exhibit) was not acceptable for one elephant, it’s certainly not for two. I just hope this is not another attempt to appease the public at the expense of the animals.”

The new elephant habitat goes beyond the design and space standards for elephants set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of America, local zoo officials pointed out.

While she appreciates the improvements the Zoo has made since the lawsuit was filed – including the expansion of a rain garden at the front of the habitat, the addition of an access yard and a renovated elephant pool – Kern said it’s not enough.

“You’re talking about an animal that walks for hundreds of miles…it’s never going to meet her needs. I don’t care what they do,” she said.

Morrow said the new additions show the Zoo’s commitment to Lucky and the future of their elephant conservation programs.

“We know a lot of people care for Lucky, but we are confident that nobody loves Lucky as much as we do and has the best interest of her at heart,” Morrow said. “We take great care of all of our animals and the fact that she has outlived her lifespan by 10 years is a testament to the world class treatment she gets here. We are constantly working to be better, create better habitats and do the best for Lucky.”

The average life span for Asian elephants in the wild, where they are highly endangered, is 60 years. In captivity, that drops to about 42 years, though these numbers are debated in the scientific community.

The elephant exhibit was closed Monday so Lucky and Nicole could get accustomed to one another in private, but Morrow expects they will open the exhibit to the public sometime on Tuesday. Specifics about the opening of the exhibit will be posted on the Zoo’s social media accounts.

Morrow said Nicole was “handpicked” for her gentle and Aunt-like demeanor. In the past, zoo officials have said Lucky does not get along well with other elephants. A volunteer told the Rivard Report in 2013 that Lucky “prefers social interaction with humans rather than the other elephants. It’s all she knows.”

(Read more: Lucky: San Antonio Zoo’s Last Living Elephant)

Lucky’s last roommate, Boo, who died in 2013, was filmed pushing Lucky’s head into a stone wall. She is also reported to have knocked Lucky down upon meeting her, Morrow told the San Antonio Current in September. Kern said she is worried that history is repeating itself with Nicole.

“It’s like you being put into playground with bully — you have no place to go,” Kern said. “These two girls are in a position where they are forced to be introduced, whether they want to or not. It remains to be seen whether they will get along or not. The Zoo is always saying (Lucky) doesn’t like other elephants, so it’s kind of a shock that they would bring another one in, especially after Boo.”

Feld Entertainment retired all 42 of its circus elephants to the 200-acre Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida last month.

“We are very proud to bring Nicole to the San Antonio Zoo where we know she will be well cared for,” stated Dr. Dennis Schmitt, Ringling Bros. chair of veterinary care and conservation in a news release. “When we announced last year that all our elephants would transition from the circus to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, it is partnerships just like the one with the San Antonio Zoo we wanted to pursue so families can continue to see these magnificent animals.”


Top image: Nicole is a 40-year-old Asian elephant.  Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Zoo. 


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Katie Walsh

Katie Walsh studies journalism and English at the University of Texas at Austin and will graduate in May 2017.