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A Jumbo-Sized Tragedy for Lucy the Elephant

A Jumbo-Sized Tragedy for Lucy the Elephant

The Supremes Rule and an Elephant Loses, Yet Again

Published 05/02/12

Oh, the irony. I stood at the base of a statue dedicated a 19th century elephant, near where he died, prematurely, as elephants do here in Canada. It was April 28, the day after I had, in a cottage where I was staying in Kingsville, Ontario, learned about the Supreme Court decision about Lucy. Lucy is an ailing elephant trapped in a Canadian zoo. The inspiration for this huge statue, in St. Thomas, Ontario, surrounded by kids wanting their picture taken -- then they'd rush off to the next tourist spot -- was once the world's most famous captive elephant.


In 1861 an African elephant born in Africa was taken from his family and sent to the Jardin des Plantes, a French Zoo. From there he was moved to the London Zoo, were keepers apparently took variants of two Swahili words, "jambo" (meaning "hello") and "jumbe" (meaning "chief"), and called him Jumbo. Elephants in American zoos were the smaller Asian species, and when, in 1881, American showman P. T. Barnum offered $10,000 to use Jumbo in the circus as "the world's largest elephant," British schoolchildren, who used to ride on the gentle giant's back, wrote in protest. Cash trumped children and Jumbo was put in "The Greatest Show on Earth," as Barnum modestly called Barnum & Bailey Circus. Four years later, on Sept. 15, 1885, the circus was in St. Thomas, Ontario, and there Jumbo met a violent death when hit by a train. He was 24. His skin was stuffed and continued to be toured with the circus until the novelty wore off and it was placed in a university, later to be destroyed by fire, while his skeleton went to the American Museum of Natural History. His bones, stuffed tail and ashes still exist, while St. Thomas also continues to profit from the elephant whose name lives on in the adjective "jumbo."

Barnum exploited both humans and elephants, something we have been doing since Neanderthal men hunted mastodons and mammoths. It is a love/hate relationship that elephants might see as mostly driven by hate. Oh what we do to them. Just a couple of weeks ago the king of Spain, supposedly a conservationist, shot an elephant in Botswana, thus continuing a tradition whereby rich guys gun down elephants for what is deemed sport. But that pales to insignificance compared to the huge number slain in order to obtain the ivory from their tusks. Entire populations of African and Asian elephants have been extirpated, or greatly reduced in number. Many more die because they get into the way of farms and development. They are big animals who require a lot of room.

And that's what they don't get in our Canadian zoos. Nor can they experience the kind of complex social interaction that characterizes their wild brethren. That's why the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) insisted that zoos had to keep elephants in groupings -- up until it was noted that the Edmonton Zoo, where Lucy lives out her lonely life, has no other elephants. The solution? Change the rules.

The Edmonton Humane Society, which is funded by the city that funds the zoo and seems to lack expertise, won't lay charges, and when animal protection groups tried to use the courts, they were defeated on the grounds that they "lacked standing." Thus the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Sorry, Lucy, and shame on us for thinking she was worth their attention.

Poor Jumbo, taken from his family in Africa and exploited to the end. I hope his death was quick. Lucy's won't be. She can't know that there are huge numbers of people who want her moved to a sanctuary where she can live out her life with some comfort and elephant companionship. According to reports from zoo visitors, she's largely kept from public view of late, although some of her defenders have glimpsed her at a distance, and worry that she's limping more than ever. She has some sort of respiratory distress. Numerous experts have said the climate is too cold and unfit for elephants. Her wild home was Sri Lanka, a hot, tropical place.

We still can't rest assured that the Toronto Zoo's three female African elephants will go to the PAWS sanctuary. One has already developed a serious foot problem. But the exploiters won't let go, and Toronto Zoo staff have dragged their heels, delaying a move that was to have happened by now. It's an old story. There's no contest. We humans are puny next to an elephant, but we weld the power. Elephants who have dared to fight back have been hung, electrocuted and shot dead. They may be the lucky ones. Lucy, alas, is one of the unlucky ones.

Blogging off,

Barry Kent MacKay

Senior Program Associate

Born Free U.S.A.

Canadian Office:(905) 472-9731

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