DALLAS – Jenny the elephant lazily poked her trunk into a bucket of fruit as her keepers at the Dallas Zoo hosed her during her morning bath, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she could soon be shipped far from her home of 22 years. She's also certainly unaware of the debate her possible departure has stirred.
Zoo officials plan to send Jenny, who became the zoo's lone elephant when her companion died in May, to a drive-through wildlife park in Mexico because African elephants become unhappy when left alone. Activists call the idea terrible and say Jenny is a nervous 9,000-pounder who fears cars and would be miserable there.
"It would be inherently cruel to move her to Mexico," said Margaret Morin, who leads a group called Concerned Citizens for Jenny. "We've grown up with Jenny. She's our family. She deserves better than getting sent to a drive-through tourist attraction in Mexico."
The group and dozens of other activists gathered in front of the zoo last weekend to protest the possible move, which City Councilwoman Angela Hunt criticized this week in a commentary in The Dallas Morning News. They want Jenny to go to a much larger park in Tennessee.
Hunt said she's concerned because the Mexican facility is not subject to annual inspections and regulations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and because elephants in Mexico are not protected by the U.S. Animal Welfare Act.
"Jenny's situation is of great concern to many people I represent," Hunt told The Associated Press. "This is not an indictment of the zoo in Mexico, but Jenny deserves to be somewhere she will be happy."
Officials at the Dallas Zoo, the Africam Safari Park near Puebla, Mexico, and even celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna all say Africam is a top-notch facility where 32-year-old Jenny would be well cared for. The Dallas Zoo would retain ownership of her.
"We know she is a nervous elephant, and with protected contact, she can approach people if she wants to and we can monitor her stress levels easily without anyone getting hurt or killed," Africam owner Amy Camacho said.
Camacho said Jenny and her future companion, a female named Shanty, would share about five acres in a new African elephant exhibit at the park 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. Camacho said Africam would be a good place for Jenny because she is older and is used to being in captivity.
On Tuesday, Hanna, the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and a frequent guest on nationally televised talk shows, released a statement supporting the Dallas Zoo's plans.
"These animals need our help to protect their natural habitat, as well as facilitate conservation programs throughout the country that are helping new generations of wildlife stewards and conservationists," the statement said.
Hunt and the other activists think Jenny would be much better off at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. The 2,700-acre facility, the nation's largest natural-habitat refuge, is home to 17 elephants and is known as a haven for troubled ones.
Jenny would share a 300-acre enclosure with three other African elephants. Her Dallas home is about one-sixth of an acre.
While the Elephant Sanctuary is not a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, it is approved by the Agriculture Department.
Carol Buckley, who co-founded the haven in 1995, said the refuge would accept Jenny, but it is not supporting the activists trying to persuade Dallas Zoo officials to change their minds.
Zoo director Gregg Hudson visited the Mexico facility on Tuesday. Africam, founded in 1972, is considered one of the top zoos in Latin America and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Dallas Zoo spokeswoman Susan Eckert said officials plan to continue inspecting Africam to ensure it is the right fit for Jenny.
They would consider bringing her back once the zoo's own habitat for African animals is built in about three years, Eckert said, but officials are not yet sure whether she would return. They would monitor her behavior at Africam to determine whether she would be happier in Dallas.
For now, though, Jenny continues to frolic in the Texas heat until a final decision is made this fall. Zoo officials say they will continue preparing to send her to Africam, though they will reconsider if they encounter a major problem with the facility.
"Whenever you deal with children or animals, you have to consider a lot of options," Eckert said. "We're still trying to go through our plans, and we usually have time to consider our options, but with all the furor that we've had to go through, we've had to be a little more outspoken about our choices."