San Antonio Express-News Writing

Lucky the elephant gets roommate, renewing protest against captive elephants

June 27, 2016

Lucky the elephant, a 56-year-old, nearly lifetime resident of the San Antonio Zoo, got a new roommate Monday, triggering further concern from animal rights activists who say the habitat is unsuitable for even one elephant.

But zoo officials say there’s plenty of room for Nicole, a 40-year-old Asian elephant who walked off a truck and into her new home Monday to meet Lucky, who has been alone since her previous companion, Boo, died in 2013.

The zoo adopted Nicole, a former performing elephant, through an agreement with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey and has said the exhibit she’ll share with Lucky is suitable for as many as three of the massive mammals.

Lucky is “quirky” and can be picky about her friends, according to Executive Director Tim Morrow, but he said the two elephants seemed to have a friendly first introduction.

“Nicole came up and they smelled on each other and rubbed on each other a little bit, like elephants do,” Morrow said. “(Nicole is) really a caring, gentle elephant. She’s not really dominant. … She’s sort of down the middle of the road, kind of like Lucky.”

A red barrier at the beginning of the walkway leading to the elephant habitat barred visitors from seeing the new elephant Monday because the two needed private bonding time, Morrow said. In lieu of an open exhibit, the zoo released a video on itsFacebook page showing Nicole fiddling with a tire hanging from a post before stretching out her wrinkled trunk to greet Lucky over a green fence.

The video, along with the announcement, prompted immediate disquiet among animal rights activists who have long protested Lucky’s living conditions.

Rachel Mathews, associate director of captive animal law enforcement at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, released a statement Monday calling the zoo’s actions a “dirty circus deal.”

Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus organizations Nicole came from, announced in January that all its 42 elephants would move to the 200-acre Ringling Bros. Conservation Center in Florida by the end of May. If Nicole doesn’t develop a positive relationship with Lucky, Morrow said, she will go to the center.

“(Bringing in Nicole is a) half measure meant to silence the public outcry against the San Antonio Zoo, where one lonely elephant, Lucky, has swayed back and forth in psychological distress for years,” Mathews said. “There’s no justice in locking her up in a small, virtually barren enclosure alongside another elephant.”

Nicole’s arrival comes in the midst of a legal battle between the zoo and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of three San Antonians in 2015, accusing the zoo administration of damaging Lucky’s health and possibly causing her foot and joint problems.

The zoo’s website states that Lucky shows no signs of chronic foot problems.

Since the lawsuit was filed, the zoo has updated Lucky’s exhibit, adding a walk-in entrance to her pool and more trees for shade. Jeff Pierce, legislative counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the changes aren’t enough.

“Our lawsuit was based primarily on the zoo’s having isolated Lucky, an enormously emotionally and socially complex animal,” Pierce said, “but the fact that they are springing on her a 40-year-old elephant … doesn’t necessarily allay our concerns.”

On the “We Love Lucky” website, which the zoo created to “expose the truth” about Lucky’s captivity in the wake of articles claiming that she was being abused, the zoo called the search for a new companion an “extensive and time-consuming process.”

“The zoo has insisted, not really from the lawsuit but from several years prior, that Lucky would die alone,” Pierce said. “Nicole’s arrival was a surprise to us. It’s obviously relevant to the lawsuit.”

Brian Carter, spokesman for the zoo, said Morrow has been interested in adding an elephant since his appointment last year. The zoo’s website stated that the zoo would not be adding another Asian elephant, which Carter said was a result of not updating the site since Morrow’s arrival.

The decision to get a companion for Lucky was not based on the lawsuit, Morrow said.

“I think that the people that don’t want elephants in zoos will not be swayed, and that’s not why we do the things that we do,” Morrow said. “Really what we do is not for our opponents, it’s for the betterment of the species.”

Karrie Kern, CEO of One World Conservation, has long pushed for Lucky to move to a sanctuary and has watched Lucky’s two former companions come and go.

“We knew a lot about Boo’s history. With Nicole, we’re scrambling,” Kern said. “We know she’s Ringling, she’s a circus elephant, it’s not going to be a good situation.”

Despite animal rights protests demanding that Lucky be moved to a sanctuary, the zoo has repeatedly argued that the elderly mammal could be bullied in another habitat, as she is not used to being in a herd, and that the move itself — which would involve lifting Lucky into a crate — might kill her.

Kern said her organization will file a federal complaint with the U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversees enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, to check on Nicole’s health and that this new development has only impassioned her mission to get Lucky out of the zoo.

“It doesn’t change anything. It puts another elephant into an already-stressed situation,” Kern said. “Obviously, we’re in this fight to the bitter end.”

Lucky and Nicole’s exhibit is expected to reopen today.