Independent assessment of Lucy the elephant reveals ‘new medical information’: City of Edmonton

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Independent assessment of Lucy the elephant reveals ‘new medical information’
WATCH: The results of an independent health test conducted on Lucy the elephant from Edmonton Zoo were released Tuesday by the city. Slav Kornik has the details. – Mar 21, 2023

Edmonton Valley Zoo and animal advocacy organization Free The Wild cooperated on an independent assessment of Lucy, the 47-year-old Asian elephant.

The October 2022 assessment revealed medical information about the animal that was previously unknown, the city said Tuesday, while releasing the results publicly.

The medical assessments took place over three days at the zoo and a number of follow-up tests in the months after.

Four international experts found that Lucy has very severe hypoxemia and hypercapnia — low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels in her blood and tissues — and two of the visiting veterinarians found she breaths solely through her mouth, which they say they’ve never seen before.

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The city said Lucy’s breathing issue is “more serious than the visiting experts anticipated” and “unfortunately the root cause of the condition remains undiagnosed.”

Free The Wild said that because of her breathing issue, the experts could not sedate Lucy during the assessment because it could “easily cease her breathing. “This also limited the types of tests that could be done, the animal organization said in a news release.

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It was also discovered that she has a uterine tumour (leiomyoma), which the city said is quite common in female elephants who have never given birth. The tumour is large and is being treated with a vaccine recommended by the visiting veterinarians.

The assessment was performed by four international elephant veterinary and husbandry experts: Dr. Frank Goeritz (head veterinarian of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife), Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt (head of the Reproduction Management department at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife ResearchResearch), Dr. Patricia London (founder of the Asian Elephant Wellness Project and consulting) and Mr. Ingo Schmidinger (director of operations of the Global Sanctuary for Elephants).

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However, after reviewing the reports, both the zoo and Free The Wild agreed that Lucy is not fit to travel “due to the uncertainties regarding her severe breathing impairment” and will remain at the Edmonton Valley Zoo.

Lucy the elephant at the Edmonton Valley Zoo on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Global News

“Conclusions from some of the visiting experts confirm what previous independent experts have advised about the very high risk presented if she were to travel,” zoo director Gary Dewar said. “Over the past 45 years, staff at the Edmonton Valley Zoo have worked tirelessly to give Lucy the best care and best home she deserves. We will strive to ensure she continues to receive excellent care.”

“The team shows huge dedication to their daily tasks,” Schmidinger wrote. “Extraordinary is the amount of Lucy’s caretaker and the time spent with the elephant during all daily working hours, as well as the extreme attention she receives from each team member.”

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Schmidinger and London both recommended Lucy be moved — ideally to an elephant sanctuary — when her health allows. London suggested The Elephant Sanctuary (TES) in Hohenwald, Tennessee, which is a two-to-three-day drive from Edmonton.

“As the question with regard to her respiratory issue is still not answered, although this ailment has been observed and mentioned now at least since 2008 (14 years), we have to assume that under the current circumstances, and as we still don’t know what is happening to Lucy, she might not be fit for travel at this very moment,” Schmidinger said.

“If we would have clarity on what is happening to her, we would be able to revise the entire situation. Thus, and in particular, the remaining questions are: Where does the underlying cause regarding her respiratory issue come from? Is the underlying issue treatable?” Schmidinger asked in his report.

Hildebrandt and Goeritz thought it best that Lucy not be moved.

“In summary of all medical finding we conclude that Lucy is not fit for travel, neither for long nor for short distances,” they wrote in their report. “Chief case for that is her severe respiratory problem which leads to rapid hypoxemia, hypercapnia and increase of lactate values.”

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Lucy the Asian elephant at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. Provided: City of Edmonton

“Whilst the reports were not unanimous, it is the overarching recommendation of Free The Wild and the professional panel that Lucy remains in place until evident improvements to her overall health and breathing are recorded,” the group said in its news release.

“However, to ensure Lucy’s well-being, the panel has made it clear that several significant changes need to be made to her facilities and the way she is cared for by zoo staff.”

The recommendations include:

  • Providing additional space and freedoms for Lucy to roam at her leisure;
  • Fresh water for bathing and wallowing;
  • Air quality checks with the implementation of air filtration systems to ensure she breathes clean, microbe-free air;
  • Changes to Lucy’s diet to help her lose weight, as being overweight can impact her joints and long-term livelihood;
  • Move to a protected contact management system to increase her autonomy.
Lucy the elephant at the Edmonton Valley Zoo on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Global News

Free The Wild said the Edmonton Valley Zoo has been made aware of these recommendations and it is confident they will be implemented. The organization and several panelists will work with the zoo in the following months to monitor progress, Free The Wild said.

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“Lucy’s case is a unique one and we appreciate the cooperation of Edmonton Valley Zoo in working with us to provide her with the best possible care,” Free The Wild co-founder Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne said.

“We believe these changes will improve her health and overall well-being and are committed to monitoring her progress in the coming months.”

The city said several of the panel’s recommendations have been implemented, including changes to Lucy’s diet and medical treatments. The elephant has already lost 326 kilograms, the city said.

The obesity is an ongoing concern, all four experts noted in their reports. It contributes to her mobility, joint health and pressure sores.

“According to her records, Lucy has weighed as much as 9,445 lbs (recorded on Oct. 3, 2022) and as little as 8,120 lbs in 2012,” London noted. “Nonetheless, as every consultant has recommended since 2002, Lucy must lose at least 1,000 lbs for her comfort and health.”

In her report, London said the elephant is constantly managed by humans.

“Lucy is not permitted to do anything on her own and her daily life is lacking in any autonomy. Control over her behaviors is so significant that it even includes Lucy going to the bathroom in the drain where she has been trained to go, and being rewarded for doing so,” she wrote.

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“While on walks she is continuously being touched and nudged to move forward, even at times when she is stopped and contently grazing.”

London pointed to the small enclosure and cold temperatures as another concern.

“The forced walks on the snow and ice in -15C weather borders on absurd,” she wrote.

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The city says the zoo will continue to monitor Lucy’s weight and overall health, as well as look at possible changes to her housing, enrichments and routines.

“I’ve travelled the world and I’ve been to many zoos and sanctuaries and circuses across the globe,” said Sagan Cowne, trustee and director of communications for Free the Wild.

“What I’ve seen here in terms of commitment from the zoo staff is extraordinary.

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“It’s definitely a very good baseline from which any zoo should look to (to care for) their animals.”

Lucy came to the zoo as a two-year-old orphan in 1977.

An annual, independent assessment is required by Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) in order to maintain Lucy in Edmonton as a lone elephant. She has been assessed yearly by outside experts for more than a decade, the city said.

Julie Woodyer, campaign director for Zoocheck, said some of the findings were disconcerting.

“One of the most shocking things was the advanced uterine tumour that they found — so large that it’s pushing aside organs — and yet was previously undiagnosed.”

She said another finding that stood out to her was the incomplete endoscopies that failed to determine the cause of Lucy’s breathing issues.

“As long as she remains undiagnosed, no one knows the extent of that breathing issue,” Woodyer said.

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“A couple of the reports talked about how she’s constantly being managed by the staff, which is not really a proper way to be managing elephants. They should have some autotomy to make choices about where and how they will spend their time. Of course, her enclosure is too small for that.”

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Woodyer said if the zoo won’t move Lucy, it must enlarge and enhance her space and ensure it’s climate controlled year-round.

“The zoo gets to make the call at the end of the day and if they refuse to release her, they need to invest in making her life as comfortable as possible,” she said.

“They’ve put new gates on the zoo, they put in restaurants, they’ve done all kinds of things to enhance the public areas of the zoo, meanwhile Lucy’s situation remains dire.”

To read the latest (and previous) medical assessments of Lucy the elephant, click here.

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