SAN ANTONIO (CN) – The San Antonio Zoo will face an October trial on claims it violates the Endangered Species Act through its treatment of Lucky the Asian elephant, who has been at the center of a two-year legal battle over her habitat.
U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez found that a full trial is necessary on claims from the Animal Legal Defense Fund that the endangered elephant may be suffering continuing harm from conditions of her captivity. At 57, Lucky is the 10th oldest of the 210 captive Asian elephants in the United States.
“This case will proceed to trial on plaintiffs’ two remaining claims – that the Zoo is harming and harassing Lucky by providing an enclosure with an inappropriate substrate and inadequate shelter from the sun,” Rodriguez’s 63-page ruling states.
The judge dismissed parts of the 2015 lawsuit, but ruled on June 8 that the animal-rights group provided sufficient evidence that Lucky’s habitat may be in violation of the ESA because it does not properly protect her from the Texas sun, and has an unnaturally hard ground.
The unnatural floor contributes to Lucky’s abnormal gait and her probable arthritis and joint calcification, the group says.
“The Endangered Species Act is in place to protect animals in captivity and the wild from mistreatment and abuse,” ALDF executive director Stephen Wells said in a statement. “We are committed to enforcing laws designed to protect animals to their fullest.”
Zoo spokesman Chuck Cureau said they look forward to proving at trial that the remaining claims are without merit.
Trial is set for Oct. 2.
Lucky was plucked from her family in the Thailand wilderness when she was a baby 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.
The legal battle began in December 2015 when the ALDF and three San Antonio residents accused the zoo of physically and psychologically injuring its then-only Asian elephant with its “inhumane” treatment.
Rodriguez ruled that the group failed to present sufficient evidence that Lucky is being harmed and harassed by the small size of her enclosure. He also found that the addition last year of two new Asian elephants mooted the claim that Lucky is being deprived of companionship with other Asian elephants.
The two new Asian elephant companions were introduced two months apart to Lucky through a partnership with the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: 40-year-old Nicole, and 47-year-old Karen. Zoo officials say the elephant habitat has been upgraded and includes an expanded pool with a beach, new grass, and more shade trees.
Whether the ESA provides a forfeiture remedy that would allow Lucky to be transferred to an elephant sanctuary will be decided at trial, the judge ruled. The group wants Lucky to be sent to a world-renowned elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, at its expense.
Zoo officials say they have no intentions of giving up Lucky, who at 57 is equivalent in age to a 90-year-old human. The median life expectancy for an Asian elephant in North America is 46.
International law firm Dentons US LLP and San Antonio-based animal welfare attorney Melissa Lesniak are representing the group 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 Asian elephants left in the wild, which are known to be extremely social animals, according to the World Wildlife Fund.