By Enrique Lopetegui
“Ladran, Sancho. Señal que cabalgamos (“When the dogs bark, it is because we are working),” said Don Quixote, according to my dubious English-translated copy of the Cervantes classic (I would've preferred "advancing" to "working," but you get the idea).
After a press conference Friday at the San Antonio Zoo where activists demanded that Lucky the Asian elephant be retired and transferred to a sanctuary, the first person to bark at the Zoo was director Steve McCusker. He defiantly told the Express-News that those who demand to see animal records (especially those concerning Lucky) “will never get them.”
“They would utilize those documents for all the wrong reasons and don't have people capable of interpreting them.”
Just like Lucky, McCusker (and the Zoo’s marketing and public-relations supervisor Debbie Ríos-Vanskike, who refused to speak to the Current) are showing signs of stereotypical behavior. Lucky does the infamous head-bobbing seen in animals under stressful conditions; McCusker and “Current, no” Ríos exhibit the paranoid behavior often seen in sloppy Zoo, shelter, and animal-sanctuary people who claim transparency and legitimate animal love, but who refuse to release records that would give us an idea of how many animals have died and how or what shape the live animals are in.
“I think [critics are] out to close all zoos,” McCusker told the E-N. “They don't know anything about medical science, they don't know anything about biology, they don't know anything about captive management, they don't know anything about what we do for field research and for rare and endangered species. I would suggest that arguing with them is fruitless.”
Never mind that the among the people who called the press conference (In Defense of Animals, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, and VOICE for Animals) were IDA’s wildlife biologist and veterinarian Anand Ramanathan and veterinarian Mel Richardson, who was the SA Zoo’s veterinarian for five years.
While Ríos kept silent, McCusker kept on barking, rebutting what the E-N called “a rumor.”
“We're committed to keeping Asian elephants,” McCusker said, even though in November 2008, when the Current reported on the Zoo’s plans for a new African elephant exhibit, McCusker said that, “The plan is to get one or more Asian elephants, which is not as easy as it sounds … Then, when the time is right, move those animals out so we can get in there and do some total Phase 3 construction When that is completed, we’ll bring elephants back, but they’ll be Africans.”
Needless to say, the back-and-forth transfer of captive elephants is one of several obvious violations to the Animal Welfare Act, but the US soccer team will win the World Cup before the USDA (or anybody) enforces the already weak animal protection laws.
On the phone Monday, Ríos was nicer than in person on Friday.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the Current, but I don’t want to get into the reasons we don’t want to speak to them,” she said. She even laughed when I told her I’m the new guy here and that, compared to Greg Harman (who wrote the 2008 report and always goes for the jugular), I’m an infant who throws softballs. But she wouldn’t buy it.
“No, I won’t ask [McCusker] to speak to you.”
So all we have is what IDA, the ZCTF, and Voice for Animals tell us and show us.
“It’s time to give Lucky a break,” said Catherine Doyle, IDA captive-elephant specialist. “She’s done her time.”
Lucky, an Asian elephant, has been at the SA Zoo for 47 of her 49 years, and since 2007 she has been living alone at the Zoo, after the death of Alport, her companion. According to a complaint filed by IDA with the USDA on November 2, her half- acre enclosure is too small and barren, and doesn’t have enough shade. Elephants are social animals and Lucky is alone, and we don’t know for sure what the state of her health is because the zoo refuses to release its records.
“The Zoo has resisted calls to send Lucky to a sanctuary,” reads the complaint, “and has kept her in a cramped and outdated zoo exhibit which is inadequate to meet the needs of elephants.”
The allegations are backed by a graphic 23-page report sent to IDA in late October by the ZCTF.
After the press conference, I asked Mel Richardson his opinion on state and federal animal protection laws.
“I think they suck,” said Richardson, who was the SA Zoo vet for five years. “The laws don’t have any teeth behind them. Even USDA people on top are very frustrated because they can’t change it. It’s a large, bureaucratic mess that is basically run by the agro business industry in this country.”
Is it time to change the laws? Are politicians part of the mess? Do they have any interest in keeping things the way they are?
“Either they have an interest or they don’t care,” he said. “There are so many pressing problems like crime, or the economy, that the way politicians think, I believe, is, ‘Oh, it’s just an animal.’ ”
Ultimately, it all comes down to money.
“Elephants need money,” said Richardson. “It’s a business. Most zoos don’t want to get rid of elephants, I believe, because they’re afraid less people are going to come through the gate. And in order to make the improvements they need to make, it’ll be much more expensive.
“[The Zoo is] very nervous about people knowing how many animals have died. The USDA doesn’t even know how many animals died. This was the last zoo I’ve worked in, and after this, I said ‘no more.’ ”
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