Edmonton Valley Zoo is making improvements to Lucy the elephant's enclosure and routine to accommodate her for the long term after international experts did not agree she was fit to be relocated.
The zoo hosted four elephant veterinary and husbandry professionals – sponsored by U.K. animal advocacy organization Free the Wild – in October.
The experts conducted numerous tests on and observed Lucy for three days, evaluating not only her health but also her quality of life and the likelihood she'd survive being moved out of Alberta's capital city.
Among their findings was a mass, believed to be a benign tumour, in Lucy's uterus; the experts estimated her uterus and the tumour together weighed about 80 kilograms.
They also found the 47-year-old Asian elephant has low blood-oxygen levels, especially after exercise, and breathes only through her mouth – which is extremely rare for an elephant.
The first signs of a respiratory issue in Lucy's trunk were noticed in 2004, and previously led the zoo and other experts to believe she wouldn't survive travel.
But as zoo director Gary Dewar put it, the validity of that advice was disputed by animal advocates. And so, he welcomed Free the Wild's help when the group reached out.
The zoo and Free the Wild worked together to select the four experts who assessed Lucy in October.
"I think we were of the mindset that they needed to see it to believe it – and they did see it. They saw that she, in fact, very much after minimal exercise, has trouble catching her breath," Dewar said in an interview on Tuesday.
"It was a great opportunity to engage experts that have been endorsed by many advocacy organizations and it was quite a process and quite a collaboration."
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TRUNK ISSUE NOT POSSIBLE TO DIAGNOSE
Whatever Lucy's respiratory issue, she is not in distress, the experts noted. But it does appear as though she does not use her trunk to breathe or drink at all.
Previous experts as well as the most recent advised against sedating Lucy to take an endoscopic look at her trunk because of concern she would stop breathing. Such imaging also would not guarantee an answer to the experts' questions.
A vet in 2009 proposed Lucy's malpositioned teeth were the source of the problem, but several teeth have fallen out since then without effect.
Dr. Patricia London, who founded the Asian Elephant Wellness Project and was one of the four to visit Lucy in the fall, advised Lucy's barn's air quality be tested to determine if she could have a disease or allergy. She called the situation confounding and strongly advocated Lucy be moved to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee where she would have access to more space, other elephants and specialized staff.
"The real truth is no one knows how Lucy would do in transport, but we do know that she has suffered and continues to suffer where she is now," London wrote in her report, noting Lucy is a lone elephant far outside of her natural environment.
The second panelist, Ingo Schmidinger, director of the Global Sanctuary for Elephants in Brazil, agreed it was not possible to know whether Lucy was able to travel without knowing what was causing her respiratory issue and whether it was treatable. He also said the Edmonton Valley Zoo would be denying Lucy her "basic requirements" as an elephant if it did not improve her enclosure and routine.
The last experts, Frank Goeritz and Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, conclude Lucy was not fit for travel because of the stress.
"Something as significant as a move to another country is just not worth the risk," Dewar told CTV News Edmonton.
Based on the experts' findings, Free the Wild has dropped the recommendation Lucy be moved until her overall health and breathing improve.
"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," co-founder Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne said in a statement. "We believe these changes will improve her health and overall well-being and are committed to monitoring her progress in the coming months.”
Lucy's mouth breathing is also the reason for her droopy cheeks; according to the experts, she takes big breaths, holds them, and exhales slowly.
NEW DIET HELPING WITH WEIGHT LOSS
As for the tumour, the experts believe it is leiomyoma, which they said is commonly found in female elephants who have never given birth like Lucy.
They recommended a vaccine that has stopped or slowed tumour growth in elephants before. The zoo has already begun treatment and hopes in the future months or years, it gives Lucy more comfort and mobility.
At 4,257 kilograms in October, Lucy was also considered obese. The zoo reported happily on Tuesday that with a new diet and other changes, Lucy had lost 326 kilograms of weight.
Finally, Edmonton Valley Zoo is exploring what upgrades to Lucy's enclosure are possible, such as increasing its size, using finer sand and softer floor materials, increasing its natural daylight, or adding a heated pool, which the experts said could be therapeutic.
"If we were to look at a year-round heated therapy pool. That would certainly be something that would require additional funds, but we're exploring that," Dewar told CTV News Edmonton.
Altogether, the zoo has received about $36 million in municipal funding for infrastructure work.
"We're just super thankful and appreciative. Again, everybody's goal at the onset of this was to uncover new insights that might help us better address her health issues and on that lens, we were very, very successful," Dewar said.
"We're going to continue caring for Lucy in the best way that we can and know of," promised zoo vet Marie-Josée Limoges.
'APPROPRIATE FOR LUCY TO BE MOVED'
Mary-Ann Holm of Lucy's Edmonton Advocates' Project (LEAP for Lucy), an advocacy group that wants to see Lucy moved from the Valley Zoo, said it's puzzling that Free the Wild concluded that Lucy should not be moved.
"I don’t understand why Free the Wild has made the statement that they have, because if you look through the report, only one veterinarian, one of the consultant reports is stating that Lucy can’t go, out of the three," she told CTV News. "So I’m not sure why the conclusion has been made so final from Free the Wild that Lucy must remain in Edmonton."
She believes based on London's findings, Lucy should be moved from Edmonton with the support of zoo staff.
"Her report is the most extensive of the reports there, and she makes a very clear case as to why it would be appropriate for Lucy to be moved to sanctuary and how she could be moved quite safely."
"She does say, though, that the Valley Zoo staff would have to be on board and be part of Lucy’s transition, and part of the transport to make sure that Lucy isn’t stressed, and it’s seamless."
She added all three experts found that Lucy's care at the Valley Zoo has not been adequate to date.
"What’s interesting is all the reports there really imply the mismanagement of Lucy’s medical condition and the impoverished life she lived in the conditions that she's in at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. That seems to be fairly unanimous across reports."
Holm said she does not believe the zoo will follow through on improving Lucy's enclosure, or adding a heated pool. She said she's heard similar promises from the zoo before, but they've never materialized due to funding shortages.
She also wants to see improvements to the ventilation system in Lucy's barn based on information from a city audit report.
"It was reported recently that Lucy is breathing in dust and she has a bad ventilation system in her barn, which concerns us obviously when one of the issues being raised is her breathing is the reason she can’t go."
"There’s rodents in Lucy’s area, there’s pigeons in Lucy’s area, the droppings from that can lead to respiratory disorders."
Holm said the report will serve as ammunition as LEAP for Lucy continues to fight to see the elephant moved.
"We’re going to continue to fight and we’re going to take this new information that we now have, and we’re happy to have an unbiased examination done now, and try and run with that."
All of the reports that came from the October assessment are available online.
Lucy was born in 1975 in Sri Lanka. She came to Edmonton in 1977 as an orphan.
Lucy has surpassed the life expectancy for an elephant in a North American Zoo and could live for another four to eight years, the experts estimated. In the wild, Asian elephants can live 60 or more years.
With files from CTV News Edmonton's Alison MacKinnon.