Lily Tomlin wants elephant relocated

October 17, 2008 5:08:59 PM PDT
Comedian and animal rights advocate Lily Tomlin said Jenny the elephant has worked 22 years for the Dallas Zoo and it's time for the aging pachyderm to retire to a spacious Tennessee refuge. Tomlin, who has seen video footage of Jenny appearing in distress, visited the Dallas Zoo for the first time Friday to view the elephant in her habitat.

"It's heartbreaking," Tomlin said. "If you know anything about elephants ... you would just ache for her.

"It's just a simple fact that the area is too small. We'd like her to go the sanctuary now."

The actress has been in Dallas most of the week, working with Concerned Citizens for Jenny. The group wants the zoo's lone 32-year-old elephant sent to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., where Jenny can roam on hundreds of acres and socialize with other elephants.

At issue is the lack of space and the animal's loneliness, concerns zoo officials say they are in the process of addressing.

For 22 years, Jenny has lived at the Dallas Zoo, on about a quarter of an acre. Her pal, Keke, the zoo's other African elephant, died in May.

Tomlin and Margaret Morin, a nurse who founded Concerned Citizens for Jenny and accompanied Tomlin on her zoo visit Friday, said that after reviewing Jenny's medical records they're convinced that the 10,000-pound elephant has had a traumatic life and is still not doing well.

They saw the elephant's broken tusk Friday and said it was the result of self-mutilation. Both added that Jenny is depressed, and is often drugged to keep her under control.

But Jenny looked anything but downtrodden Friday as she played with her handlers, raised her feet for inspection and sprayed water into the air.

Morin said that usually the elephant has abscesses on her feet and exhibits a swaying motion, which she said is a sign of extreme stress.

The zoo countered that elephants are known to sway whether in the wild or in captivity and that Jenny received treatment that healed her foot problems long ago.

Tomlin said she was surprised but pleased to see a shade screen over Jenny's outdoor area, a full watering hole and balls and treats -- items that were not visible in the videos, though zoo officials said those weren't new.

Zoo officials say moving Jenny to an unfamiliar place with a different routine and new handlers would be more stressful than keeping her where she is.

"We're the best facility for her," said Gregg Hudson, the Dallas zoo's director. "We understand her and we've got a system set up that she's very comfortable with and there's really no reason to disrupt that."

Zoo officials have expedited plans for a larger elephant habitat that would give Jenny at least four acres to wander on. It is expected to open in spring 2010. They said they hope to add another elephant in the next 30 to 60 days.

But Tomlin and Morin want Jenny immediately moved to the 2,700-acre refuge in Tennessee, which is known as a haven for troubled elephants. They said the zoo should not exhibit any elephants until the expansion is complete.

The elephant controversy began earlier this year when Dallas Zoo officials announced plans to ship Jenny to a wildlife park in Mexico so she wouldn't be lonley after her companion died. But they reconsidered after protests. Critics of the Mexico move favored the Tennessee refuge.

Although the Tennessee site is not a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the sanctuary is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is the nation's largest natural-habitat refuge. At the elephant sanctuary, Jenny would share a 300-acre enclosure with three other African elephants.

By meeting with Dallas city officials, making public service announcements about Jenny and doing a benefit concert at a comedy club to raise awareness Thursday night, Tomlin is hoping to persuade zoo supporters to her line of thinking.

She said she hopes "they'll see the right thing to do and they'll do it."

Tomlin, a longtime animal advocate who has also been active with the Los Angeles zoo, said "I'm not going to let this go."

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