SAN ANTONIO (CN) - The San Antonio Zoo is physically and psychologically injuring its lonely endangered Asian elephant by refusing to send it to a sanctuary, animal-rights activists claim in court.
Represented by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and private attorneys, three city residents sued the San Antonio Zoological Society in Federal Court on Tuesday, accusing the zoo of violating the Endangered Species Act through its "inhumane" treatment of Lucky the elephant.
Lead plaintiff James Graham claims the 55 year-old elephant suffers continuing harm from the conditions of her captivity, without companionship of other Asian elephants, and with limited shelter from the heat.
After receiving the Animal Legal Defense Fund's intent-to-sue notice, the zoo planted a few trees, but Lucky took them down by using them as scratching posts and playing with them, and the zoo never replaced or maintained them, Graham says in the lawsuit.
He claims that Lucky's pool is too shallow for her to submerge and cool herself from the hot San Antonio sun, and that she has been injured by a hard floor of a thin layer of sand and limestone in an enclosure that is too small for her.
The unnatural floor contributes to Lucky's "abnormal gait and her probable arthritis and joint calcification," a leading cause of premature death for elephants in captivity, Graham says.
He and his co-plaintiffs want Lucky to be sent to a world-renowned elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, at the Animal Legal Defense Fund's expense.
"The conditions in which Lucky is presently maintained at the zoo are harming her in various ways and significantly impairing her ability to engage in normal elephant behaviors," the complaint states.
Lucky was plucked from her family in the Thailand wilderness when she was a baby and spent her first two years of captivity at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois. She has been on display at the San Antonio Zoo since 1962.
A zoo official told Courthouse News the zoo could not respond to the lawsuit without approval from its CEO, which approval apparently had not come by Friday morning.
Lucky had a friend at the San Antonio Zoo, another Asian elephant, who died in 2004. Another older Asian elephant, who had to be euthanized due to illness in 2013, acted aggressively toward Lucky because the zoo's enclosure was too small, leaving Lucky the zoo's lone Asian elephant.
The zoo tried unsuccessfully to place an African elephant with Lucky but they did not bond, "primarily because Asian and African elephants are very distinct species that would never encounter one another in the wild and do not communicate or bond easily in captivity," the lawsuit says.
That elephant died in 2007, and a campaign to release Lucky from captivity and into an elephant sanctuary began.
"By keeping Lucky alone, without the requisite companionship from other Asian elephants, the zoo is harming and harassing Lucky in violation of the ESA," the complaint states.
Lucky's conditions began to spread internationally in 2008, when the nonprofit animal rights organization One World Conservation began campaigning on her behalf.
"As is readily apparent in the media, there is a public outcry to 'Free Lucky,'" the lawsuit states.
Zoo officials have publicly stated that the zoo intends to keep Lucky without any Asian elephant companionship until she dies, according to the complaint.
"More and more zoos have admitted that they cannot meet elephants' complex needs and have closed their elephant exhibits," Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells said in a statement. "Instead of acknowledging the obvious - that it cannot meet Lucky's needs - the San Antonio Zoo makes excuses about why it is unwilling to allow her to have a better life."
A San Antonio City Council member invited both parties to mediate the dispute, but zoo officials declined to participate. The Animal Legal Defense Fund said the zoo has twice declined to discuss settlement possibilities.
"We hope the zoo will choose to let Lucky live out her days in the more natural environment of a sanctuary, rather than stand around waiting to die where she is now," Wells said.
The plaintiffs are represented by San Antonio-based animal welfare and criminal defense attorney Melissa Lesniak, and Matthew Nickel with Dentons US LLP, both pro bono.
Asian elephants are the largest living land animals in Asia, although they are slightly smaller than the African elephant. There are estimated to be 40,000 to 50,000 left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Elephants need large territories to survive in the wild. They have become icons in the fight to preserve animals due to their intelligence, their social nature, and perhaps above all, because elephants appear to understand the concept of death, and grieve for their friends.
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