Admittedly, Susi looks sad. Her skin droops, and her dark eyes seem a little teary. She's said to occasionally rock back and forth with apparent anxiety. And then there are reports of her eating her own feces. But does that add up to mental illness? Determining depression, let alone among nonverbal members of the animal kingdom, is always tricky business. But such is Susi's plight that the Queen of Spain and a famous writer have weighed in. And so now, the question about what to do with Barcelona Zoo's star elephant has taken on new urgency.
For years, Susi shared her space at the zoo with another African elephant, a few years her senior, named Alicia. When Alicia died in February 2008, the loss came as a blow, according to the animal-welfare organizations Libera and the Foundation for the Adoption, Sponsorship and Defense of Animals (FAADA). "She's living in 1,000 square meters of concrete, which are not proper conditions for an elephant," says Alejandra Garcia, spokesperson for the Free Susi campaign. "But as long as she had Alicia she was more or less O.K. Now, though, she's apathetic, her trunk hangs on the ground and she's eating her own excrement. Clearly, she's depressed." (See pictures of how one conservationist manages elephants in the wild in Africa.)
Earlier this year, Libera and FAADA mounted a campaign to encourage the Barcelona city government, which oversees the zoo, to transfer Susi to a safari-type institution where she would have more space and would be able to join a herd. But their efforts received little notice until they let it be known that both José Saramago, the Nobel Prizewinning Portuguese novelist, and Sofia, Queen of Spain, had interceded on Susi's behalf. For her part, the Queen, who has long championed animal rights and is herself a vegetarian, forwarded the organizations' letter to the city government, urging them to consider it. Saramago wrote a plea on his blog to the city of Barcelona that Susi be given a "dignified" life, and describing the pachyderm as "dying of sorrow." (See pictures of the elephants of Asia.)
Not so fast, say Barcelona officials. "If you're a patient, the person whose diagnosis you're going to trust is the doctor treating you," says Miquel Trepat, director of Barcelona Zoo. "And in this case, our veterinarians and technicians the people who deal with Susi every day say that she's in a perfect state of health." To be clear, he emphasizes, "Susi's behavior hasn't changed since Alicia died." (See 10 animal species in danger of extinction.)
Nevertheless, the charges sting. The zoo says it is undertaking temporary measures to improve Susi's living conditions, nearly doubling the space dedicated to elephants and replacing the concrete floors with dirt, which is kinder to elephants' sensitive feet. It has also been actively searching for a new companion for Susi since Alicia died. "That's not a solution," replies Garcia about the improvement plans. "[The current condition of the elephant quarters] just makes things worse for another elephant."
The activists behind the Free Susi campaign have taken the zoo's efforts to amplify Susi's living space and find her a companion as evidence that their complaints have had an impact. However, they would like to see the zoo go further. "Susi's condition keeps getting worse," Garcia says. "She's not going to get better unless she's released to a reserve." (See a story about managing elephants in the wild in Africa.)
Trepat, however, sees something larger and perhaps more radical than concern for Susi in the activists' complaint. "If you look beneath the surface of what they're saying, you detect a certain orientation toward doing away with zoos altogether," he says. (Read a story about why zoos are bad for elephants.)
The reason for such suspicions is that Barcelona the most politically progressive of Spain's cities is currently engaged in a massive renovation of its 117-year-old zoo. When the project is completed in 2015, the city will have a marine zoo on the shore, and a second, habitat-based zoo for land animals in the urban center. "We're transforming ourselves from the traditional, cage-based zoo to a modern conservation center that teaches respect for biodiversity," says Trepat. Susi's alleged unhappiness may become a weapon to attack the very idea of a zoo for Barcelona.
So is Susi a pawn in a larger war? Or is she really depressed? "If she's really eating excrement, if she's displaying rocking behavior, that would be abnormal for an adult elephant in the wild," says Dr. Joyce Poole, director of the conservation group Elephant Voices. At the behest of Libera and FAADA, Poole plans to travel to Barcelona to examine Susi's behavior for herself. But based on her studies of elephants in Africa, she admits to a certain bias. "Personally, I don't think we should have elephants in city zoos," Poole says. "Elephants in the wild are active in mind and body 24 hours a day listening over long distances, smelling predators with their extraordinary sense of smell, interacting with friends and relatives. What urban zoo can provide that?"