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The Zoo's New Elephant Will Be Sent to Florida If It Doesn't Bond With Lucky


This is Nicole. The San Antonio Zoo's new elephant. - SAN ANTONIO ZOO
  • San Antonio Zoo
  • This is Nicole. The San Antonio Zoo's new elephant.
When One World Conservation's CEO Karrie Kern heard the San Antonio Zoo brought in a companion for its lone elephant Lucky, she was surprised.

"The thing that surprised me is more that they have aligned themselves with Ringling," Kern said. "We had no idea she was coming."

For decades, animal rights groups have accused Ringling Brothers of animal cruelty. The circus announced in January that it was retiring all of its elephants to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.

The San Antonio Zoo's newest elephant, Nicole, appears to be is one of the first elephants to land in a zoo instead of Florida. We asked the company that owns Ringling to clarify why Nicole was being sent to a zoo instead of to the conservation center in Florida, but got no response Tuesday; we'll update if we hear back. 

Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the company that owns Ringling, said the zoos in Tulsa and Ft. Worth also have elephants that performed for Ringling.

"Part of our conservation program is to partner with zoos and share our knowledge and elephants so that people will continue to have a chance to see these magnificent animals upclose and in person," he said.

However, if Nicole, 40, and Lucky, 56, don't get along, Nicole will be sent to Florida, San Antonio Zoo Executive Director Tim Morrow told the Current.

"It's basically a loan agreement," Morrow explained. "If it doesn't work out, let's take [Nicole] out and reassess."

But so far, he says, introductions are going well.

"I think we’ll know over the first week or two [if Nicole and Lucky will work out]," Morrow said.

If it doesn't work out, Morrow said the zoo would try to figure out whether to leave Lucky alone or find a new match. He also told us that the zoo may look to expand its elephant habitat to possibly bring in more of the giant mammals in the future.

Lucky's last companion, Boo, was aggressive and the two elephants did not get along. Boo died in 2013.

Since Morrow joined the zoo in late 2014, he's responded to people and activists concerned about Lucky by saying that she prefers the company of people over elephants. So when the zoo announced Nicole's arrival Monday, it took many people by surprise. 

Kern, who has spent nearly a decade trying to convince the San Antonio Zoo to end its practice of exhibiting elephants, worries about Nicole's health.

"The information we have right now is that she is 40, that there are joint issues, foot issues, which is a concern because the number one killer of elephants is foot disease and arthritis," Kern said. "We are gathering that she is not in the best of health."

Morrow admits that Nicole does have arthritic pain, but says the elephant's feet are fine.

"She's got a clean bill of health to us. There was nothing that concerned us. [Nicole] is getting up there in years," Morrow said. "I've seen her feet. The feet look great to [the veterinarians]."

Mostly, Nicole's pain is a result of aging, he said.

Court documents from a lawsuit filed against Ringling by a former employer and an animal rights group called the Animal Protection Institute in the early 2000s showed that Nicole had problems with her feet while performing for the circus over the years. The lawsuit alleged Ringling was abusing animals. After 9 years of litigation, a judge ruled in favor of Ringling.

Kern also questioned whether Nicole was quarantined before meeting Lucky. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends a 30 to 90 day quarantine period.

Morrow said there is no quarantine facility for an elephant here, and that vets from the company that owns Ringling and from the zoo said both animals were fine.

"We’ll be filing a federal complaint to make sure quarantine was done like it’s supposed to in next couple of days," Kern said.

The San Antonio Zoo is already embroiled in federal litigation with another animal rights group, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which sued the zoo accusing it of harming and harassing Lucky because the elephant is “(a) without the companionship of any other Asian elephants; (b) in a small enclosure; (c) with virtually no shelter from the sun; and (d) on a hard, unnatural, species-inappropriate substrate,” an alleged violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Carney Anne Nasser, a senior attorney with the ALDF litigating the case, says Nicole's arrival to the zoo changes nothing.

"Nicole has been torn away from elephants she had been housed and forced into the circus with," Nasser said, adding that it's still to be determined whether the elephants will be a compatible match. "The zoo is still in violation of [AZA social composition policy] that mandates at least three compatible elephants."

Nasser accused the zoo of being more interested in selling tickets than in taking care of animals.

"The transfer demonstrates that when it comes to the San Antonio Zoo and Ringling, if they truly cared they would allow Lucky and Nicole to retire to reputable sanctuary rather than shuffling around like baseball cards," Nasser said.

Morrow and the zoo have always shot back at those allegations, saying Lucky's best interests are at heart.

"Lucky has inspired, one, me personally, two, staff, and, three, our community," Morrow said.

Kern, who isn't involved with the litigation, says the addition of Nicole, if the relationship with Lucky sticks, also doesn't change a thing. She wants the zoo out of the business of exhibiting elephants. 

"My stance is we’re not abandoning our cause," she said. "We stick behind Lucky, and now Nicole."

However, Kern hopes the animals will get along.

"If they don’t get along we’re in the same square root. I’m hoping that they will bond," she said. "Truthfully, that’s my hope."

Updated at 9 a.m. with comments from Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the company that owns Ringling.

Correction 12:37 p.m.: ALDF lawyer Carney Anne Nasser the San Antonio Zoo not having three elephants violates the AZA social composition policy, not the Endangered Species Act.

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