Interview with San Antonio Zoo Director, Steve McCusker
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Interview with San Antonio Zoo Director, Steve McCusker


Transcription of interview conducted in July 2008 between Zoo director Steve McCusker and San Antonio Current reporter Greg Harmen regarding “Lucky” the Asian Elephant.

Greg (G): I guess my first question would be, what are the ultimate plans for Africa live, uh, as far as the elephant exhibit and Lucky?

McCusker(M): Well, it’s, it’s…the Africa live piece of that is a ways off, but to put things in perspective, we just finished Africa live phase one.

G: OK

M: Which is complete and is open to the public, om…we’re just having some sort of fine tuning issues with it. Phase two is…the contract is let, and we’re about to begin, uh, construction on phase two, which is Okapi, an aviary, Colobus Monkeys….and, and a host of other animals. Phase three, which has not been designed yet, has not had any capital campaign, there is no money for it at this point in time will include elephants, African hoofstock, Rhino, and perhaps some other things, but as I say, it’s not designed so we don’t know what’s going to happen there. The plan as it pertains to Lucky at this time is to, Lucky’s an Asian Elephant…the plan is to get one or more Asian Elephants, which is not as easy as it sounds and we’ve been lookin since the day after Alport died.

G: mmm hmmm

M: Om, we’ve got a few things lined out now om…I’m not sure how those will proceed, but the plan is to get another Asian elephant or two to put with Lucky

G: mmm hmmm

M: and then…when the time is right, move those animals out so we can get in there and do some phase three construction. And then when that’s completed, we’ll bring animals back, but they’ll be African Elephants.

G: OK…

M:…Cause the whole, that whole section of the zoo in the master plan was destined to be Africa.

G: mmm hmmm…

M: So that’s..that’s the big plan. All that being a ways off, we have no intention of not absolutely responding to Lucky’s needs…om…and I’m not…I’m not sure…(sigh)…I mean we, we realize that from a strict biological standpoint, as well as from public perception, and those two may not be joined at the hip if you will…

G: mmm hmmm

M:…but we realize that we need to get other elephants. The bottom line to that, and sort of my editorial piece is that Lucky’s always been sort of a different elephant…and because there are probably nine or ten people who are closely aligned with Lucky…we all know that deep down that Lucky’s as happy as she could ever be. She doesn’t need other elephants, she doesn’t want other elephants

G: mmm hmmm

M: She was captive raised, hand raised

G: right
M: and so she’s, she’s fine…but that;s not, that’s not the direction that we’re necessarily following…

G: mmm hmmm

M: because of elephant biology, because of what we know about elephants, and because of public perception

G: and…and, and

M: So for people out, for people, I guess what I’m doing is responding before you ask for the people out there saying “she’s alone, she’s sick, she’s got foot problems, she’s got joint problems, she doesn’t have any water…she’s on a hard surface”…those are all wrong.

G: OK, so you’re not saying…OK so you’re saying that, that these attitudes that the surface in the zoo, the size of her enclosure, the fact that she doesn’t have other elephant’s, these are all just wrong..

M: the fact that

G: wrong thinking?

M: I think so, ya. I know most of them are wrong. The fact that she doesn’t have other elephants, I think is defensible, and we’re in the process of looking for other elephants

G: Is that an AZA standard?

M: mmm hmmm

G: that you have…not…more that one elephant together at a time

M: right, and I think that we are doing the best we can…om…

G: do you get calls, people saying…

M: we get emails

G: “we want more elephants”…not necessarily for Lucky, for the, it’s not the free Lucky campaign, but people are just saying “why can’t the..why can’t San Antonio have more elephants?” do you get calls like that?

M: we get…no. but we get lots of calls saying “we really like elephants”, and “do you have elephants” and “what are you going to do with elephants” and “we want to keep elephants”

G:OK

M: but we don’t get the rash of these people like we do the “send Lucky to sanctuary”…om, but these people are…these people are. I think, personally, ignited by the voices for animals or are ignited by what I call extremist groups…um…and I would suggest that there are probably a hundred and fifty…maybe closer to a hundred years of elephant experience at this institution and the people we get these letters from only know what they’ve been told to say. They don’t know anything about elephants

G: how much experience would you say that a sanctuary like the TN sanctuary…do you think there’s a comparable level of training or sophistication?

M: No. Carol Buckley has years of elephant experience because she was a circus person. And she worked with elephants in a circus, and that’s sort of her history, which often goes untold, but she’s a circus girl…and then she started the sanctuary…om. And she’s got a guy working with her who probably has….25 years of experience? Most of the others have far less than that….om, and so I, I just, I just think that these people have perspectives sort of jacked out-a-line…and…and just…they’re into it from an emotional side rather than a factual or a biological side.

G: mmm hmmm…now, the majority…you have, you had three Africans here

M: We’ve, we’ve had as many as four, we, since I got here we’ve had three; two Asians and an African.

G: what year was that…what year was that that you came?

M: ninety four

G: OK. And, because on eof the things that I hear a lot about that, that several of those elephants also experienced foot problems or died at least diagnosed with arthritis of the foot, torn ligaments, that sort of thing. Is that common in the zoo experience, captive elephant experience>

M: foot problems used to be common…foot problems are not as common as they used to be…and I think that goes along with the fact that over the last twenty five to thirty years, zoos really have been the force behind learning about elephant biology and the force behind learning about elephant medical issues and the force behind solving these medical issues and the force behind treatment of, of zoo elephant or of captive elephant problems. Om… when Ginny died…she had serious joint problems which may or may not have been directly related to captivity or lack of mobility or anything like that. Alport died from a torn ACL, which is typically a stress injury that happens to football players, basketball players…om…and it and it and it is usually trauma induced. It’s it’s not some sort of, of long term ailment. And we’ll never know how she did that. We’ll never know how she tore that ACL, but, I can’t remember frankly if it was an ACl or an MCL, but in any case, she had a torn knee ligament just like humans get, cause the structure’s all the same…but, that wasn’t a long range situation that happened because she was on hard ground, or because she didn’t walk 75 miles a day, which elephants don’t really do, but that’s what voices for animals proposes. So a lot of the information that we here about from that side of the fence, if you will, is based on bad information. And, the elephant we have now has very good feet, has very good legs, has one little bursa that we’ve tapped twice that does not have any…it’s a tumor type thing. It’s not, it’s not malignant. So, it’s just like a mole or something that you or I would have…

G: right….and she’s now…49 years old?

M: there abouts, ya

G: and the others that you cited…Ginny…

M: they were around that same age, ya

G: Ok, and do you think that…OK, one thing that I’ve heard, I haven’t seen the video, but one thing I’ve heard is she does a lot of…that her feet are not in great condition, she does a lot of shifting her weight constantly…a kind of repetitive motion…is there an issue with her…

M: see, now that’s based on such fallacy, that, that the fact that elephants do that has nothin to do with their knees, their joints, their feet. They do that for the same reason that you and I will sit some place and uncross our legs one way and put ‘em another way, cause it’s motion. It’s what they wanna do…and they usually do it if they’re anxious like before feeding time, if they wanna go in, if they’re expecting somethin to happen. It’s not, it has nothing to do with a medical condition…(pause) nor, is it necessarily some, some stereotypic behavior that indicates that their mind’s all screwed up either

G: That’s the other thing I was…

M: It’s just…it’s just what they do…om…dogs do it. Cats do it. Horses do it…animals just…do those sorts of intermittent repetitive behaviors and people for years have said it’s because animals are crazy, and their locked up and have nowhere to go…and in some cases that’s probably true, but certainly not absolutely true in every situation.

G: and in the case of Lucky You’re saying absolutely not?

M: she has..she doesn’t have any physical ailment that would indicate that behavior. So, the, if people to you might be saying that the reason she does that is because her feet are all screwed up, and all the joints hurt, they’re wrong. And, and that’s some more of those pieces of misinformation that you know…(clears throat)..(pause).. People who’ve been studyin elephants in a combined fashion in zoos for thousands of years if you include all the players and all the animals…om…for some reason the voices for animals people who have never dealt with animals in their life all the sudden know all there is to know about elephants. And I, I think that Carol Buckley’s place is pretty cool, but I also think that there’s a lot of things about it that other people don’t take into consideration. Such as vet care, such as, all animals don’t get along together, such as the head keeper killed there in the last six months that nobody ever heard about. There’s a lot of bad things…but, but and I don’t say that to promote it cause I don’t wanna go there….I don’t want you to think that we’re bashing them in our own behalf, cause we’re not. I mean, it’s a cool place and I’ve been there, I’ve visited there, but it’s not al it’s cracked up to be I guess is what I’m sayin…and in order…in an effort to do what’s right for Lucky, the real easy cop out way to do it would be to say “well, we’ll just put her on a truck and send her there and then we can wash our hands of the whole thing.” But we’re not going to do that.

G: you don’t believe that she would be happier…

M: No

G: In a sanctuary?

M: No, absolutely not

G: Because…

M: Because, she’s set in her ways….She’s old in elephant terms…the stress, the trauma. I don’t think would be rectified by goin down there in a whole new area, whole new setting, whole new group of animals, whole new group of people…and she’s not exactly the friendliest elephant on earth. So, even if everybody loved her to death, she wouldn’t love them to death…so, there’d be some issues with that that she’d have to deal with…

G: right…

M: And I think for our situation (if we/Before we) can bring animals in here we can introduce them…om…in a sort of slower more controlled fashion.

G: How important are elephants to zoos as far…well one, as a functioning kind of economically I guess, and then how important do you believe having elephant exhibits is to conservation ideals?

M: I think economically its of absolutely zero impact

G: ya

M: And one of the, one of the “others” if you will, always say “well why are you just getting elephants so you can raise your gait and so that they can earn their fee” and that’s just garbage, I mean, I don’t think our attendance would go down one iota without elephants.

G: But, you do have a lot of people that call and are interested in…

M: We just think that they’re really cool animals and that people should have the opportunity to see them and to learn about them, and to appreciate them. And in, in the long run I think they should be bred in captivity. I think there’s a real need for animals to be bred in captivity. I think it’s good for the wild populations, I think it’s good for the research that we do in the field, and neither of the sanctuaries that exists have any bulls or even have any desire to breed elephants….om…

G: That’s a real difference between zoos and sanctuaries in general wouldn’t you say?

M: mmm hmmm, yup. And I think that we have learned again in the last twenty to twenty five years, we have meaning zoos have learned so much about elephant reproduction. There’s artificial insemination goin on now. I think there’s been three African calves born in the last just as many months. Disney’s had ‘em, I think buffalo had one…om..uh…Louisville Kentucky had one. So, there’s people breedin elephants and it’s a very cool thing and it will, we will learn a lot from it and we will be able to apply that knowledge to field conservation. There’s also a lot of…(sigh)…zoo money being sent to conservation projects.

G: Right.

M: There’s an outfit called the elephant interest group and it’s based out of Fort Worth. (pause)
Elephant…elephant interest…elephant…foundation?…and it’s based out of Fort Worth…

G: Fort Worth, really?

M: uh huh, and we’re members. And we’ve sent them significant amounts of money…and they really are sort of the hub of a lot of elephant research. Most of it in fact is field research.

G: OK. And so there is an effort…and, and I guess it is the one shift that I see that that I think is really interesting is the shift into conservation..uh, and, and beyond education. I guess, it seems like the education was the first step away from just strictly an entertainment facility. And there’s also been cases through that process with zoos that say “well, we can’t expand to have a good elephant exhibit” Like Detroit or…uh…San Francisco. What does, what can San Antonio Zoo do to make sure that we have the best and healthiest environment for the elephants that do come here?

M: We can um…continue with one or two more in the existing situation we’ve got a really good elephant staff. We’ve got two veterinarians who are both interested in elephant biology and elephant health. There’s a whole cast of players we can call on if something develops that we need work with. I mean, there’s 218 accredited institutions…I think 82 of them have elephants. There’s a whole bunch of people out there that we can rely on. The other thing that we can do is that we can, we can deal with those elephants until we begin phase three and when we begin phase three, if we’re goin to do elephants, which we have every intention of doin, we’re gonna do it different. We’re gonna do three times as much space, three times as many elephants. Probably have a bull, probably if not have a bull….if not have one bull and cows to breed, we would be a holding facility for a number of bulls. Om, bulls get to the point at 5,6,7 years old where they need to be out on their own. Yet, if they’re with other bulls, they’re Ok as long as there’s now females involved. So there’s a need to house groups of bulls to maintain that genetic diversity so that those bulls can either be, can either have artificial..om..insemination semen extracted from ‘em, to be sent to bre, to om…infiltrate cows or send the bulls somewhere to naturally breed animals. So there’s a whole lot of things like that that actually happen now, and will have to happen on a much larger scale cause elephants are runnin out of room in both Africa and Asia.

G: (laughing) well, they’re not alone…

M: no

G: ya, so you’re talking about three times the space, three times what we have here, three times the AZA standards, but with…

M: three times what we have here which is within AZA standards. I, I can’t give you the measurements because I don’t..i don’t wanna misquote ‘em. But I’m on the, the elephant TAG the taxon group, and also serve on the accreditation commission so everyone’s really careful to make sure that things get done right. And as soon as Alport died, within days we had to have a letter of our intent off to AZA, and share with them that yes, we’re gonna maintain her, we’re gonna get another companion, and work toward toward improving our elephant facility..blah blah blah blah blah….

G: now, she came, she was captive, captured in the wild, was my understanding…um…what do you know…

M: yes, that’s mine too and that she was…

G: probably the product of a cull…

M: ya, she was…well, probably not even the product of a cull. Probably just taken. Or maybe, maybe came from a logging ranch…om…but it was a long time ago, so I’m not sure. And she was at another zoo before here you remember all that stuff, we gathered all that stuff.

G: she was briefly somewhere she came in at two or three different…

M: ya

G: ya…um…how…how would if you to…to comply with AZA and to have companionship for Lucky since you, you know, decided to keep her here at the zoo…where do you find elephants….where, I mean it’s, I know it’s got to have been dramatically different than it has been in the past…

M: it’s…it’s..it’s difficult, for several reasons. It’s difficult because there are a number of zoos that are dealing with middle to old age populations much like we were, or are, in fact…so…they don’t want to necessarily move their elephants cause they’re happy, they’re content and good where they are. Om…we had a cow/calf situation that we could’ve taken, but somebody else got them before we did…om…we’re looking at getting in a young animal now from Canada.


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