GUNTER: Let Lucy the elephant retire at her home, in peace

gunter: let lucy the elephant retire at her home, in peace

EDMONTON, ALTA: JULY 1, 2015 — Lucy the elephant celebrates her 40th birthday on Canada Day at the Edmonton Valley Zoo which also turns 56 in Edmonton, July 1, 2015.

Early in my journalistic career, I was on tipline duty late one night in a newsroom.

A call came in from an animal rights advocate who was concerned about a giraffe at a failing Alberta game farm that might be sold to a fake safari ranch in Texas, where rich guests could pay to pretend they were in Africa shooting wild animals.

The activist was distraught that my publication was unprepared to stop reporting on all other matters and devote our pages entirely to pressuring the game farm owners, their creditors and Alberta politicians to save Jeffery (or whatever the giraffe’s name was).

“We wouldn’t do that for any human,” I explained.

“But this isn’t about a human,” the caller sputtered. “It’s about a defenceless animal. It’s a violation of its rights.”

“Rights?” I asked credulously. “You mean you think animals are equal to humans?”

“No,” she gasped. “Animals are better than humans.”

For much of the two-decades-long battle by protesters to remove Lucy the elephant from the Edmonton Valley Zoo, I think the city and zoo administrators have been up against that same “animals are better than humans” attitude.

Small batches of protesters who occasionally straddle the Buena Vista Road approach to the zoo frequently make over-the-top accusations, such as Lucy’s enclosure is a “hell hole” and her treatment amounts to “torture.”

Oh, give me a break.

I’m not a big fan of zoos. I’ve been to several, including world-famous ones in San Diego and Berlin, and they don’t do much for me. They’re kind of interesting, but if all the zoos in the world disappeared overnight, I wouldn’t lose any sleep.

There’s no doubt even the best zoos cannot replicate their animals’ natural habitats.

But “hell hole?” That’s an accusation from someone who is overreacting.

Chalk it up to the Disneyfication of nature — the image of birds and beasts as cute, chatty creatures with loads of human feelings and thoughts. Bambi, Thumper, Simba, Lady and the Tramp.

I understand why people get attached to animals. They’re guileless, reliable and affectionate. I love our two dogs and will be gutted when either one of them is no longer around. Gutted.

I’ve known people so devoted to their horses that the death of one was like losing a family member.

I’m not heartless.

But Lucy is not Free Willy. She is not an inmate.

The Valley Zoo has paid for assessment after assessment over the years, the clear majority of which have concluded she is well cared for or too old to be transported to an elephant sanctuary, or both.

Would it be better if she were with more of her own species? Theoretically, I suppose so. But it’s not as if the zoo hasn’t tried. Other elephants have been introduced into Lucy’s enclosure and she has failed to bond with them.

On the other hand, she has bonded with her human handlers, so much so that some consulting veterinarians and zoologist have judged her to be a “people elephant.”

Ironically, animal-rights types flip their stories. When it suits their goals they talk about how well elephants interact with humans — how human-like their behaviour is towards their offspring, for instance. Then when, in Lucy’s case, they want to rescue an elephant, they insist human contact is immaterial.

Would it have been better for Lucy — who was found orphaned in Sri Lanka in the 1970s — to have been socialized to other elephants from Day One? Perhaps. But we are more than 45 years beyond that theoretical choice now.

Lucy is too frail to be transported out of Edmonton. And it is entirely possible that she has bonded with her human handlers to such a degree that separation from them would kill her.

It’s time for activists to leave Lucy alone to retire in peace.

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