SAN ANTONIO (CN) - A Texas judge refused to dismiss a federal lawsuit accusing the San Antonio Zoo of violating the Endangered Species Act through its treatment of Lucky the Asian elephant.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund and three San Antonians sued the San Antonio Zoological Society in December complaint, claiming the 56-year-old endangered elephant is suffering from physical and psychological injuries from captivity.
U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez rejected the zoo's motion for dismissal on Jan. 27, finding that the plaintiffs "have sufficiently pled causes of action under the ESA."
The animal defenders "clearly allege facts that state that the zoo has deprived Lucky of companionship with other Asian elephants; has kept her in a small enclosure with virtually no shelter from the sun; and Lucky walks on a hard, unnatural, species-inappropriate substrate," the ruling states.
"These allegations could constitute a 'harm,' i.e. any act that 'significantly impair[s] essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding or sheltering," the 5-page ruling states.
Rodriguez rejected the zoo's argument that group's complaint fell under the federal Animal Welfare Act, which does not provide for filing of private lawsuits, and should be tossed for failure to state a claim.
"Plaintiffs have stated a cause of action upon which relief can be granted at this procedural stage. Accordingly, defendant's motion to dismiss is denied," the judge found.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund said its attorneys now will conduct discovery, seeking access to records of the zoo's elephant-keeping program, and an "independent veterinary and site-specific analyses of Lucky and her enclosure."
"Lucky has served her time entertaining the residents of San Antonio and deserves a happy and healthy retirement," Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells said in a statement. "We want her to live out her life living as an elephant should - with other elephants in as natural an environment as possible."
The San Antonio Zoo has declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Lucky was plucked from her family in the Thailand wilderness before her first birthday and spent her first two years of captivity at Brookfield Zoo in Illinois. She has been on display at the San Antonio Zoo since 1962.
Zoo officials have said that the zoo intends to keep Lucky without any Asian elephant companionship until she dies, according to the original complaint. She has been the zoo's sole Asian elephant for the past three years.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund says scientists have recognized that Asian elephants are emotionally, socially, and psychologically complex animals, who recognize themselves in a mirror and exhibit higher-order emotions such as mourning and altruistic behavior.
There are estimated to be 40,000 to 50,000 left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The animal-rights group wants Lucky to be sent to a world-renowned elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, at the Animal Legal Defense Fund's expense, or an order forcing the zoo to remedy its treatment of Lucky.
A scheduling order in the case is due by Feb. 11.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.