It's been a hard-knock life for Jenny the elephant.
She was captured in Africa in 1976 and came to the Dallas Zoo in 1986. Her time there has been marred by self-inflicted abscesses on her right rear foot and "aggressive-dominance behaviors" toward a fellow elephant named Vasha, leading to three years of being doped up on Acepromazine, a powerful tranquilizer.
Her behavior got better when her keepers stopped using the "hands-on" management technique—a domination-style method that uses a bull hook—but then Vasha was taken away, and Jenny spent two years in solitary confinement.
When Keke, an older female elephant, moved in, things began to brighten. Jenny got along with Keke. Jenny no longer exhibited self-mutilating tendencies, and no one was probing her with a bull hook. Life was better.
And then, on May 12, Keke was euthanized because of heart failure.
Alone once again in the Dallas Zoo's elephant exhibit, Jenny is now the focal point of a fierce battle between the zoo and animal rights activists.
Last Tuesday, the Dallas Zoo announced plans to ship Jenny, 33, to Africam Safari Park in Puebla, Mexico, sometime this fall. The announcement drew ire from In Defense of Animals (IDA), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and local activist group Concerned Citizens for Jenny, who wanted her transferred to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee.
At Africam, Jenny will be in the company of three other elephants—all Asian elephants. Since elephants are highly social creatures, it is tantamount to cruelty to leave a female elephant in isolation, which is why her transfer to another facility is necessary. She will also have five acres on which to roam, and the hands-on management method will not be practiced on her.
The zoo justified its decision by citing Africam's Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation. In order to achieve accreditation a facility must pass guidelines put forth by the AZA—including its standards for elephant management and care.
But according to PETA and IDA, placing Jenny, an African elephant, into an area with three Asian elephants would defy the AZA's own rules.
"This directly violates the AZA elephant standards that warn against housing African and Asian elephants together due to issues related to disease transmission and behavior differences," Catherine Doyle of IDA says. "Considering Jenny's history of aggression and aberrant behaviors, including self-mutilation, it is highly likely that those problems still existing will be exacerbated, and others will again resurface.
"This also means that Jenny may be kept separate from the other elephants. Again, this is a violation of AZA elephant standards, which do not recommend keeping a female elephant alone."
Sean Greene, director of community relations for the Dallas Zoo, says that it is not uncommon for facilities to house both species, citing The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee as one such establishment. Jenny will be safely separated but will not be placed in isolation, according to Greene.
"When Jenny goes down [to Africam] in the fall, they will have an African female that will be there," Greene says. "They have told us that they are committed to expanding their herd as well. She will not be alone. From what we understand, she's going to be with African elephants."
For two months the zoo contemplated what to do with Jenny. It could've brought in another elephant for Jenny, sent her to another zoo or transferred her to a sanctuary.
Sanctuary proponents tried desperately to meet with zoo officials so they could present their case. Margaret Morin, the head of Concerned Citizens for Jenny, orchestrated a PETA protest in front of the zoo on May 16. She called both the zoo and the Dallas Zoological Society repeatedly and partnered with Catherine Doyle, who sent several letters to Gregg Hudson, the zoo's executive director.
"We received a stone wall of silence," Morin says.
Morin, however, was able to procure an audience with five Dallas City Council members on June 24. With the aid of Doyle and Les Schober, former curator of the Los Angeles and North Carolina zoos, Morin was prepared to present the virtues of the Tennessee sanctuary to council members: 2,700 acres of rolling landscape, animals of her own species to socialize with and 24-hour care.
They were not prepared for the phone call Doyle received just two hours before their first meeting. With no warning, IDA's home base notified Doyle that a newspaper had called and was requesting a comment on the Dallas Zoo's decision to move Jenny to Africam.
"I'm not accusing of conspiracies. I'm just saying this is the order of events," Morin says. "I've been trying to meet with them for two months, now they decided to transfer her to Mexico, and they've decided to make that announcement the day that we had appointments with city council. Coincidence?"
Greene says the zoo timed its press release on June 24 in an attempt to get information out at "the right time," and he's quick to point out that the local groups, PETA and IDA, are not innocent in the ways of guerilla PR tactics.
"I don't want to throw dirt here, but the day that Keke passed away unfortunately we were inundated with a lot of e-mails, and I'm not going to say that was a coincidence either," Greene says. "The determination to move [Jenny] did not come up quickly. We've done our research. We've sent zoo staff down to Africam Safari Park—they have been there before, and they have seen this facility—in addition to the AZA accreditation team that inspected this facility."
Greene says that the zoo did not send Jenny to Tennessee because the facility does not offer 24-hour veterinary care, a service she will enjoy at Africam. "We are not required to have veterinarians on staff, but we have access to veterinarians around the clock," says Carol Buckley, the sanctuary's founding director.
While Africam is guided by the AZA's regulations on elephant management, it is not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In accordance with the Animal Welfare Act, the USDA can bring legal sanctions against facilities that fail to handle animals in a humane manner.
"AZA standards are pitifully minimal. I'm very concerned about sending her out of the country to an unknown facility where she does not have the same anti-cruelty protections that she has here in the United States," said Doyle after meeting with the zoo and city council members last Tuesday.
The Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary is not AZA-accredited.
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Although IDA, PETA and Concerned Citizens for Jenny continue to hold out hope that the council or the zoo will reconsider The Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary before Jenny's transfer to Africam, during last Tuesday's meetings Councilman Ron Natinsky told them the battle was over.
"What we got from Councilmember Natinsky is that he felt they sent out the press release, they did the press conference and this was a done deal," Doyle says. "He said, 'We're not going to take it back.'"
That doesn't mean anybody is giving up. Morin and Concerned Citizens are circulating a letter begging people to contact Mayor Tom Leppert and city council members in the hopes of changing their minds, and PETA has offered to pay Leppert's way to the Tennessee facility so that he may survey for himself the kind of care Jenny would receive there.
The mayor has not yet decided if he will make the trek.