Don’t Forget Jenny

What happens when a lonely elephant, unsuspecting city officials, and a group of vocal activists collide? My hometown turns into a zoo.
Trunk show: The 10,500-pound star of the city’s latest media circus.
Courtesy of AP/Cathy Burkey

If there’s one thing I’ve learned living in Dallas for the past thirty years, it’s that we’re a very businesslike city. We’re not big on civic unrest. Whenever something happens that you might think will get our blood boiling—like the FBI raiding the offices of city hall officials or the head of the Dallas school district announcing that he overspent his budget by at least $64 million—we yawn and go back to work. We’re busy. Very busy.

And then along comes Jenny the elephant. For the past two decades, she has been the star of the Dallas Zoo. She is a magnificent creature, 10,500 pounds, with deep-set eyes and a cute little tail that swishes back and forth. On a typical day, she knocks around giant plastic balls, bangs a barrel filled with fruit, and sprays water at her handlers. She lifts one leg and then the other in exchange for treats.

Still, it’s hard not to feel a little heartbroken for the old gal. For one thing, Jenny has spent all those years living in a cramped, barren habitat totaling only a quarter of an acre. It consists of nothing more than a concrete barn, a measly patch of dirt, and a small concrete pool. Sometimes she looks utterly miserable. She sways on her front legs for hours, which some elephant experts say could indicate stress or frustration. She stares forlornly into the distance with her trunk thrown over a wall. Over the years, according to zoo records, she’s rammed her head repeatedly into a wall and dug into her right rear foot with her tusk—“a sort of self-mutilation,” one of the experts told me. Jenny seems to be, well, depressed.

Then, this past May, Jenny’s companion, Keke, died from heart failure. After Keke collapsed, Jenny stood beside her for more than twenty minutes. She waved her trunk over the body and, finally, walked away, stricken with grief. Within days In Defense of Animals, a California-based group that keeps track of the country’s three hundred or so zoo elephants, issued a press release and posted a notice on its Web site, claiming that Jenny should be removed from her habitat. Like most animal rights organizations, In Defense of Animals believes that elephants—which are highly intelligent, intently social, and extremely mobile—should not have to live in zoos. Its goal is to move all zoo elephants into privately run elephant sanctuaries, where they can frolic untethered over hundreds of acres with other elephants.

One person who read the Web posting was Margaret Morin, a soft-spoken, middle-aged registered nurse from the suburb of Richardson. Morin is hardly an animal rights activist. “Sometimes on weekends I rescue stray dogs, and I feed a few feral cats at an office building near my job, which is not easy to do because I’m allergic to them,” she recently told me over breakfast, politely dabbing at her lips with a napkin. Nor does she often visit zoos because, as she puts it, “zoos tend to depress me.”

In truth, Morin had never laid eyes on Jenny. Yet upon learning that the 32-year-old animal probably didn’t have much longer to live—the average life expectancy of elephants in captivity is 33, half that of elephants allowed to roam free—she felt something stir inside her. “I knew right then I had found my cause,” she told me. “I was going to do everything I could to make sure that we show our appreciation to this beautiful animal and send her to a place where she could finally be happy.”

Morin created Concerned Citizens for Jenny, and she started calling zoo officials to discuss the elephant’s future. When she couldn’t get anyone to call her back, she decided to hold a rally. A few weeks later, she and fifteen other members of Concerned Citizens (most of them longtime friends) went to the zoo’s front entrance, where they held up signs that read “Free Jenny” and “Send Jenny to a Sanctuary.” “We will not forget you, Jenny!” shouted Morin, who, at that point, still hadn’t actually seen Jenny.

Perhaps because it was a slow news day, the Dallas Morning News showed up. And that’s when all the hullabaloo began. Morin started receiving calls and e-mails from other citizens who loved Jenny. Within a week, Morin had more than four hundred people on her e-mail list. Some of them were so inspired that they formed their own organizations: A young mother who for years had kept a photo of Jenny in her wallet started Concerned Families for Jenny, an SMU student started SMU Students for Jenny, and a woman who works for a Fortune 500 company started Concerned Professionals for Jenny. They began attending Dallas City Council meetings, hoping to persuade officials to move Jenny to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which had already invited her to its three-hundred-acre area devoted exclusively to African elephants. And the groups held more rallies at the zoo and at city hall, with some of the most enthusiastic protesters wearing elephant suits.

Soon publications around the country were chronicling Morin’s fight. The New York Times—that’s right, the New York Times—sent a reporter to Dallas to write about Jenny. The headline read, “What to Do With Traumatized Elephant Stirs Up Dallas.” “Activists, Experts Locked in Battle Over Depressed Pachyderm’s Future” was the headline on the Web site for the CBS Evening News. “God, we look ridiculous,” one highly placed city official told me.

Although Gregg Hudson, the executive director of the Dallas Zoo, was flabbergasted that a woman who knew nothing about elephants had whipped up such a controversy, he could not deny that he had his own concerns about Jenny. When he first came to Texas, in September 2006, from the Cincinnati Zoo, he’d been dismayed to find her housed in an exhibit that had been built in the fifties. After Keke died he worried that Jenny’s mental state could worsen if she lived alone for a long period of time. When he had trouble finding another elephant to share Jenny’s home,

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