Friday, December 2, 2011

Time to put aside differences and get elephants moved as smoothly and safely as possible

On October 25, 2011, City of Toronto Council voted 31 to 4 in favour of retiring the Toronto Zoo’s three surviving elephants, Iringa, Toka and Thika, to the PAWS sanctuary in California.

The Toronto Zoo had originally proposed sending the elephants to an American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) accredited facility. Council decided the more appropriate and compassionate choice for the elephants was the PAWS sanctuary.

The move to PAWS has been endorsed by many of the world’s leading elephant experts, including Dr. Joyce Poole, Dr. Cynthia Moss, Winnie Kiiru and Dr. Keith Lindsay, to name just a few. In addition, animal experts, like Dr. Jane Goodall, animal welfare and wildlife protection organizations and many others endorse the move.

On November 24th, the Toronto Zoo Board of Management affirmed City Council’s decision and set a target date of April 30, 2012 for the elephants to be moved. This time frame allows for a working relationship to be established between the Toronto Zoo and PAWS staff, permits to be obtained, training to be conducted and winter to pass (since the elephants will most likely be moved by truck).

A number of people, such as some Toronto Zoo staff (including several elephant keepers), argued that the decision by City Council, and even by the zoo’s own Board of Management, was ill-informed and inappropriate. Some Toronto Zoo elephant keepers also said all potential recipient facilites should be evaluated and compared to find out which one was best and that the keepers should be the ones to make the decision about where the elephants would go.

In my view, the decision by Toronto City Council and by the Toronto Zoo Board of Management was reasonable, informed and appropriate. Here’s why.

1. The City Council decision was not made in a vacuum. Councillors had a large amount of material at their disposal, representing all points of view, and many of them conducted their own research.
2. The City of Toronto (and by extension the citizens of Toronto) own the elephants under a governance agreement that has been in place since the zoo was created approximately 35 years ago. Zoo staff do not own the elephants.
3. It was the Toronto Zoo Board of Management who terminated the elephant program in the first place and later affirmed City Council’s decision to send the elephants to PAWS.
4. A significant number of animals are moved into and out of zoos regularly on the recommendation of external committees, zoo managers and curators, and from time to time, other people and/or agencies. Sometimes keepers are involved in those decisions, but many times they are not.
5. The Toronto Zoo elephant discussion has been ongoing for approximately three years. Only after the discussion had run its course, nearly six months had passed since the Board of Management voted to terminate the elephant program and City Council voted to move the elephants to the PAWS sanctuary did keeper staff make a serious effort to have their voices heard publicly and independent of the Toronto Zoo senior management and the Board of Management.
6. Even though the PAWS sanctuary had been promoted for three years by animal welfare groups as the preferred destination point for the elephants, it was unreasonably excluded from the review process established by the Zoo’s board in May 2011, even though no one from the Toronto Zoo had ever visited or contacted the PAWS sanctuary to obtain information about their operation.
7. A review has been done. After the May meeting, Zoocheck compared the AZA elephant management and care standards with conditions at the PAWS sanctuary.
8. The National Elephant Center (NEC), which had been proposed as a possible recipient facility for the Toronto Zoo elephants does not exist and construction of its first phase may not even begin in 2012.
9. A professional poll conducted by RA Malatest and Associates showed that the majority of Torontonians want the Toronto Zoo elephants moved to a sanctuary, instead of a another zoo.

Here are just some of the reasons why I think the PAWS sanctuary is the correct choice for the Toronto Zoo elephants.

• A 323,748 m² (80 acre) African elephant enclosure (647 times larger than the AZA minimum standard of 500 m² adult elephant).
• Natural terrain with hills, pasture for grazing throughout the year, mud wallows, water pools that allow complete submersion and swimming, and other features.
• A 1,858 m² (20,000 ft²) “state of the art” elephant barn with rubberized flooring and heated stalls.
• Other African elephants to socialize with.
• A stable, lifetime home.
• Highly skilled elephant caretakers with a solid track record of successfully caring for old, injured, ill, infirm and retired elephants.
• Humane management and no use of the ankus (bullhook).
• 24 hour monitoring of elephants and staff that live on the grounds (something few zoos have).
• Excellent veterinary care.
• A more elephant friendly climate.
• PAWS is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

The decision to move the elephants has been made. It is now incumbent upon those who truly care about these wonderful animals to do whatever they can to ensure their move to California is as smooth and safe as possible. The elephants deserve no less.

Rob Laidlaw

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shark Fin Ban, So Far So Good

On Thursday, October 13th I was one of many speakers who addressed the Licensing and Standards Committee at Toronto's City Hall, on whether or not Toronto should ban the sale, possession or consumption of shark fin. The ban was promoted by indefatigable city councillor Glenn De Baermaeker, a staunch conservationist and animal protectionist. On Friday October 7th, the entire state of California passed just such a ban and the council of the city of Mississauga, adjacent to Toronto, had unanimously passed its ban on October 12th. On May 17th the city of Brantford became the first Canadian jurisdiction to ban shark fin.

Why? Most folks reading this probably know the simple answer and those who are squeamish about animal suffering might want to skip this paragraph. Sharks are being caught in huge numbers, and while many parts of their bodies may be used, the most lucrative is the fins. Often the fins are cut off the shark while it is alive and then the living, helpless animal is simply tossed overboard to sink, suffer and die. Much more profit accrues from filling holds with shark fins, than with entire sharks.

And while there are many dozens of species of mostly smaller, little-known and little-studied shark species who are not endangered (or whose population sizes are unknown), many of the large, better-known ones most targeted by the fishing industry are in serious decline, in some cases populations have gone down more than ninety percent; for some, extinction is imminent if nothing is done. Even in areas where sharks are protected from this ghastly practice, called "finning", including Canadian waters, enforcement ranges from challenging to impossible.

But the Toronto Chinese Business Association (TCBA) opposed the ban, in part on the grounds that it would cost caterers and some restaurants loss of income. Shark fin is not a major part of Chinese cuisine, but as something very costly its use in soups prepared for very special occasions, particularly weddings, denotes prestige. It is not, according to those who eat it, the taste or nutrition that is matters, but the cost and subsequent esteem.

But of course the TCBA never addresses how this need will be met when or if the sharks are wiped out! For reasons I'll save it for a future blog some folks seem to not believe that large, familiar animals really can, and do, become extinct.

The other argument was that somehow the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) plus Canadian laws and regulations, would surely assure the survival of sharks. Even one of the proponents of the ban said "CITES only protects three species" (emphasis mine). But actually, the three endangered species she means - the great white shark, the basking shark and the whale shark - are listed on Appendix II of CITES and therefore still allowed to be traded internationally for commercial purposes. Only some of the seven species of endangered sawfishes (closely related to sharks and also caught for their fins; some are critically endangered) receive absolute protection under from legal
commercial international trade by virtue of Appendix I listings.

And as for the Canadian government, forget it. Yes, the endangered porbeagle shark has a limit on how many are supposed to be caught in Canada, but notwithstanding its endangered status, it is still legally caught for commercial use. Eleven Canadian species of fish have either been exterminated or extirpated in Canada, all freshwater species. If Canada can't protect species in lakes and rivers, it certainly can't protect oceanic species, and indeed, many have become rare or endangered under Canadian management. Most spectacular of these is the northwest Atlantic northern cod.

The committee unanimously voted to support the ban, and the proposal comes before Toronto's City Council on October 24th.

Barry Kent MacKay
BornFree USA
Zoocheck Canada

Friday, September 23, 2011

Learning from Wisconsin Bears

Just a short while ago I paid a visit to the Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center (WBBEC), a private facility run by Wausau, Wisconsin resident Jeff Traska. I've known Jeff through email and telephone communications for about 7 years. He first contacted me for information about how to keep bears, because he was the custodian of three American black bears and he wanted to make sure he was doing the best he could to provide for their needs.

There are loads of people, organizations and zoos in the US and Canada who keep bears in captivity and I've seen more than my fair share of them. In my experience, it's quite rare to see an impressive bear enclosure, meaning one sufficiently large and complex enough for the bears they confine to actually act like bears. Most enclosures tend to be small, boring, often old-style concrete grottos, where the bears can do little more than sit, lie or sleep their lives away.

Remarkably, even though the biology and behaviour of bears is well known, there are still many horrendously bad bear enclosures, many of them expensive new enclosures in big budget zoos. Some zoos have spent millions of dollars on bear exhibits and have ended up with little more than modified versions of the inadequate exhbiits they had in the past.

The WBBEC was a refreshing change from the norm. Traska tried to figure out what the bears would need and set out to construct an enclosure that would satisfy those needs. The result is one of the largest and most natural bear enclosures in the US. It puts to shame most of the bear exhibits in traditional zoos and shows just how wasteful and deficient they are. Remarkably, the WBBEC enclosure was constructed at a cost of about $100,000.

A visit to the WBBEC raises an obvious question. If a lone individual in rural Wisconsin can build an impressive, spacious enclosure that satisfies a good portion of the bear's needs, then why can't zoos, with their expert staff, committees, architects, and millions of dollars do the same. It's time the zoo industry looked outside the traditional zoo box to see what else is there. They could learn a lot and save vast sums of money in the process. Best of all, it would be good for the bears.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Right and Wrong Decision

Not too long ago, the Toronto Zoo Board of Management voted to end the Toronto Zoo’s elephant program, at least temporarily because they left the door open to revisit elephants in the future. While the decision to end the program and relocate the Zoo’s three surviving African elephants was the right one, it was tainted by the refusal of the Board to even investigate alternative options, such as sanctuaries.

While claiming to have the best interests of the elephants in mind, the Board decided to send the elephants to another zoo accredited by the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). They dismissed suggestions that the elephants should be sent to one of the two US sanctuaries that house elephants and even voted against investigating that option.

It seems absurd, if the interests of the elephants really are a priority, to dismiss without review or investigation what might be the best and most humane option for the Zoo’s elephants, but that’s exactly what happened.

One Board member said the sanctuaries weren’t accredited by the AZA, so they were not accountable, and there were inferences about lower standards of care. The reality of course is quite different. The low standard is the zoo standard.

Both sanctuaries provide spacious natural accommodation ranging in size from 80 acres to hundreds of acres. The AZA minimum space standard for one adult elephant is 167 m² (1800 ft²). That’s the equivalent of 9 standard size parking lot spaces.

When the zoo standards are compared to actual conditions at the sanctuaries, it’s clear that the sanctuaries exceed the zoo standards in almost every conceivable way.

It’s hard to understand why people cling so desperately to the old ways of doing things, why they ignore history and science and why they ignore the best interests of the animals, but they do.

The Toronto Zoo Board of Management made the right decision to relocate the elephants, but they made the wrong decision to ignore the sanctuary option.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unbelievable! A Land Conservancy and Conservationist Who Value Nature

The Extraordinarily Unusual Really Should Be The Norm

My colleagues who have formed an organization to protect a native species of bird from being shot in large numbers while nesting were shocked to read that a “land conservancy” agrees with us. So does a conservationist.

You may think you misread that paragraph. What organization set up to protect land would want to slaughter nesting birds? Who would do that in the name of conservation?

Well, if the bird is the double-crested cormorant, the default position of “conservation” agencies is all too often that they just don’t belong and their numbers must be “controlled” to prevent the natural consequences of their very existence.

Double-crested cormorants are native. They have been here all along, but they have been so demonized, ironically because they were once endangered, that reason and logic do not prevail here in eastern North America.

I think the problem is, paradoxically, that the cormorant is vulnerable to persecution, and was therefore twice eliminated from large swaths of North America. The first time, of which there is very little evidence, but it does exist, was during a period of uncontrollably aggressive wildlife slaughter through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, when unregulated slaughter of wildlife saw the reduction or extinction of a variety of species in eastern North America.

And, long before recovering from that loss, the cormorant suffered again when, as it was attempting to re-establish itself in eastern North America, there were large declines as a result of the use of DDT after World War II. Although the exact mechanics of how it happened are a matter of debate, several top-of-the-food-chain, fish-eating species went into decline coincident to the spread of DDT, and rebounded when use of the pesticide was reduced or eliminated.

But the core belief among many hunting and fishing organizations is that the cormorant is an “invasive” species that competes with them for desirable “game” fish. Ironically many of those “game” fish are themselves, unlike the cormorant, totally alien to the waters where they were put to provide “sport” for recreational anglers.

Study after study has shown that the cormorants mostly have little or no negative impact on “desirable” species of “game” or “commercial” fish. That message has yet to permeate in the United States, where wildlife management agencies bow to the anglers’ lobbies and slaughter tens of thousands of double-crested cormorants. But in Canada we have had a little better luck. While less-educated fishing interests still rant and rave against cormorants, at least the federal and provincial wildlife management agencies have pretty much abandoned that argument, knowing it’s bogus.

But they have glommed on to another argument: Cormorants, they claim, destroy habitat. If you think about it (which cormorant detractors avoid doing) suggesting that a cormorant colony destroys vegetation is like saying a herd of bison, or African antelopes, tramples and consumes grassland. It’s true, but also part of an ecological realty that dates back millions of years and leads to no permanent loss. There is nothing less “natural” about a colony of birds than there is about trees on islands and headlands they inhabit.

But that is not understood, or at least not acknowledged, by either federal or provincial government agencies in eastern Canada, especially in the Great Lakes region. That is what is so delightfully astounding about the news out of Kingston, Ontario.

Let me explain that most lake islands that could host cormorant colonies, don’t. But when cormorants do appear the change in vegetation, as a result of the cormorants’ presence, can be rapid and dramatic.

Snake Island is only two-tenths of a hectare in size, and Salmon Island is only half that , both donated to the Land Conservancy for Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, near the east end of Lake Ontario.

The islands were donated to the conservancy, and guess what? They are going to be left natural! That means cormorants, or any other native birds, other animals or plants, are expected to be protected there, to do as they’ve always done as part of the natural processes by which species have existed and evolved for literally billions of years before humans appointed themselves as tin gods dictating what the environment “should” look like, in deference to the hook-and-bullet fraternity.

And three cheers and hat’s off to Mary Alice Snetsinger, a conservation biologist who recognizes that the donors wanted the islands to remain natural, and to Vickie Schmolka, president of the conservancy, who is quoted as saying, “Overall, the land conservancy’s approach is to preserve land and let nature take its course.”

Barry Kent MacKay
BornFree USA
Zoocheck Canada

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Guzoo gets yet another chance!

As you probably already know by now, on April 1, 2011, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) issued a provisional 60 day permit to Guzoo Animal Farm in Three Hills, Alberta. The issuance of a conditional permit came after thousands of private citizens, including thousands of Alberta residents, saw pictures of the Guzoo facility posted on Facebook and flooded SRD and the Alberta SPCA with calls and emails just prior to the zoo’s annual permit renewal date.

A media release issued by SRD on April 1st says an “independent third party verification process for assessing zoo animal health to give all parties the confidence that health standards are being met" will be conducted. Of course, this should have been done years ago, but better late than never, although SRD's wording is a bit concerning (more about that later).

The release also quotes the Alberta SPCA Executive Director, "There are a number of different complex issues that need to be looked at carefully." I agree that any facility housing wild animals has complex issues, but there have been many issues identified at Guzoo, some that have seemingly persisted for years, that are not complex, such as providing nutritive food, clean water, species-appropriate shelters, heat, etc.

Since it first opened approximately two decades ago, Guzoo Animal Farm has generated controversy and a steady flow of complaints. In a 1993 Calgary Herald article, reporter Vicki Barnett describes animals “on the windswept prairie, locked in cages offering little shelter.” Former SPCA President Joy Ripley was quoted as saying, “the wellbeing of the animals is being seriously compromised by problems with lack of disease control, dirty conditions, inadequate caging and inappropriate winter shelters. There is also a real concern for public safety.”

Since that time, Zoocheck Canada, in association with local and national animal welfare groups, have sent a steady stream of experts (e.g., veterinarians, zoo professionals, wildlife rehabilitation specialists) to evaluate conditions at Guzoo and have pushed for the relevant agencies to take action.

For years, SRD responded by sending staff out to inspect Guzoo, but they always seemed incapable of identifying anything beyond the most superficial of problems. The Alberta SPCA has also been sending inspectors out to Guzoo for years and, at times, they’ve taken some action, but their efforts don't seemed to have produced substantive results.

So, eighteen years after that Calgary Herald article appeared, the complaints are still rolling in and they're pretty much the same. Inadequate caging, filthy conditions, frozen water bowls, lack of shelter, illness, injury, the list goes on.

The Alberta Government and the SPCA have not identified who exactly will be doing the new investigation or what they will be examining, but if history is any indication, one could be forgiven for thinking that critical husbandry and care considerations, like cage design, substrates, structural enhancements, furnishings, enrichment, privacy, species-appropriate shelters, bedding, the provision of appropriate environmental conditions (particularly heat, light, humidity, ventilation for birds and reptiles), diet, food presentation, food storage, the provision of potable water, social context, and the behavioural indicators of stress and suffering, to name just a few, may not receive the attention they deserve. I hope I’m wrong, but looking at the past, cynicism is warranted.

Perhaps the most astounding fact in this whole situation is that in 2006, Alberta brought in its own zoo regulations to govern the keeping of wild animals in captivity, the result of a multi-year effort by Zoocheck Canada to obtain regulations that would address zoo problems across Alberta, including at Guzoo. Ensuring compliance with the standards is the responsbility of SRD and the Alberta SPCA. The regulations require that permitees satisfy a broad array of conditions. From what we can tell, compliance is poor.

So, getting back to the SRD claim that the 60 day conditional permit was issued so that an “independent third party verification process” for animal health assessment can take place. In my view, their wording is cause for concern.

There is so much more to wild animal housing and care than “animal health,” however that is defined. Will the authorities look only for obvious illness and injury? Will they consider all of the other housing and husbandry factors that must be met to make life bearable for captive animals? Will this be a transparent, comprehensive review conducted by a team of experts who actually know a thing or two about evaluating wildlife in captivity conditions?

One question that surfaces again and again is why has this situation been allowed to fester for years and years? Why didn't anyone in the Alberta government simply say no? Why didn't they just say to Guzoo, come up to a professinal standard within a certain period of time or no permit? As someone who has looked at zoos around the world for more than two and a half decades and who is familiar with Guzoo, I'm suprised its been allowed to go on for so long.

It's sad that it's taken thousands of regular people clogging phone lines and email boxes to bring the Guzoo issue into the public spotlight again. I hope everyone who expressed outrage monitors this inspection process very closely and, if it results in nothing more than a slap on Guzoo’s wrist, that they continue to work vigorously to bring this very sad story to an end.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lucy in the Cold with Arthritis, A Sad Elephant Saga Drags On

As I hope I’ve made clear in my previous blogs, Canadian zoos are no places for elephants, at least not from the elephants’ perspective. The animals don’t survive.

They come down with various serious medical problems relating to the fact that they just aren’t suited to the conditions available in zoos in cold climates. They develop a variety of illnesses that are not encountered in wild elephants, especially those derived from lack of exercise, cold and dampness, and lack of natural social interactions. Foot infections and crippling arthritis are major problems that cut their age nearly in half. Unlike the wild elephants, they breed poorly, a situation that creates a “need” to remove still more elephants from their home ranges to bolster captive populations at the cost of the elephants’ health and well-being.

Which brings us to Lucy, the lone Asian elephant still confined to a zoo in Edmonton, Alberta. Lucy has touched the hearts of many around the world, but not, alas, those in a position to help her. She’s sick, and although the veterinarian chosen by the zoo to look at her agrees with that, he reportedly claims she’s getting better. The zoo, municipally run, refuses to allow an independent assessment by elephant veterinarian experts.

Lucy should be moved to one of two elephant sanctuaries in the United States that can provide her with the ample space and elephant companionship she needs, under expert loving care, while also allowing her to live out whatever remains of her shortened life in a climate more closely resembling the one her species evolved to inhabit — one less harmful to her already compromised health.

The zoo has failed to meet a court deadline to diagnose and treat Lucy by March 1. There is a legal appeal due on March 29, concerning a previous court decision that outlined that the elephant’s fate lay first with need for an investigation by the local SPCA, which is also funded by the city.

Also, all zoo permits for Alberta’s zoos are due for review on April 1. Zoos are not, under existing legislation, supposed to be licensed to keep elephants unless they have three of them, in recognition of elephants’ social nature. Lucy is alone. Not that I expect the law to be upheld, or any consequences if it isn’t. My colleagues have asked the government not to renew the permit anyway, if only to illustrate the absurdity of it all. And we are planning a one-day symposium for elephants in captivity in April, in hopes of keeping people interested and concerned about the country’s ailing captive elephants, and further showing why Canadian zoos are bad for elephants’ health and survival.

Lucy is 35 years old, middle-aged for a wild elephant, but near the end of the lifespan one can expect for elephants in Canadian zoos. Surely she has served the city by being an attraction to the zoo, and now that she is in medical distress, the city can find the moral integrity to serve her, to allow her to know her last years in warmth, in open spaces, and in the company of elephant companions. The zoo will survive the absence of this unfortunate animal. Animal protectionists will pick up the tab of her rescue. Legendary TV personality Bob Barker, for example, has offered $100,000 to Edmonton just to allow experts to examine Lucy.

Other zoos have done the right thing by way of their elephants and placed them in sanctuaries. Edmonton has the moral obligation to do the same.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Canada

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is An Elephant-Free Zoo Desirable, Or Even Possible?

A dark confession was contained in the opening sentence of my last blog, where I said, “Unlike some of my respected colleagues and friends I don’t automatically and irrevocably oppose zoos, or to be more accurate, I think there can be grounds for keeping animals captive that can be defended on moral, conservation and educational grounds."

OK, for most of the public that’s not much of a confession nor very dark, but within the animal protection community there is huge irritation over zoos. Those who care to look, to study zoos, can easily become frustrated at how much harm zoos cause to animals, while contributing to the generally accepted social concepts of human “dominion” over animals. To some, suggesting there is anything about zoos that is, or can be, positive is an anathema.

But the problem lies, perhaps, in the concept of “zoo.” A zoo is usually more or less perceived by most people as a source of entertainment that takes various species of wild animals — who people might rarely or never see in their natural environments — and puts them on display in some form of confinement. In the case of elephants, as discussed in my previous blog, this is very much to the detriment of the animals. Not wanting to admit the paucity of moral justification of hurting animals in order to entertain (or profit), zoos have mounted an effective but mostly specious campaign to convince us that zoos serve higher functions. Primarily, it is claimed, zoos significantly assist the conservation of endangered species and educate the public.

Oh? There have been instances of captive breeding in zoos and elsewhere contributing to conservation by producing animals who are subsequently released to the wild. But that is not done with elephants, nor would it assist their survival. Elephants breed perfectly well in the wild, thank you. What they need is protection from poaching and various forms of encroachment and habitat loss. Those needs are not provided by the Toronto Zoo, nor at any other zoo.

Education? Last year my colleagues at Zoocheck Canada conducted a study at Toronto Zoo. They found that visitors spend an average of 117 seconds, less than two minutes, looking at the elephants. A similar study at the Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom produced similar results. And in Toronto, less than 1 percent of visitors read the signs that provide information about elephants.

But here’s the good news. The Toronto Zoo could, by extricating itself from 19th century thinking, educate children and adult visitors about elephants at much less cost than the proposed expansion of the current elephant display, and do so without hurting elephants! What is being proposed is use of modern technology to produce an educational center.

It’s fun just thinking about such a concept. Imagine, for example, a simulated patch of elephant habitat where kids could literally feel the low-decibel, sub-audio rumbling by which elephants communicate. Imagine a model of elephant dung that kids could search, as elephant biologists do with the real thing, for clues as to diet and internal parasites. Imagine a life-size model of an elephant, intact on one side and cut away on the other to show organs and organ systems that could be illuminated with the touch of a button. Imagine wrap-around screens that put the viewer in the midst of a heard of African elephants with the kind of natural groupings and behavior never seen in zoos. Imagine a holograph that changes between the two species of African elephant and then changes into an Asian elephant. Imagine a succession of life-size animated models of prehistoric elephant species and a mammoth tusk you can touch. Imagine a display of one day’s consumption by an elephant. Imagine being able to cue recordings of various elephant vocalizations with an explanation of what they mean. Imagine an interactive map of Africa and Asia where you could push buttons that are numbered to different years, with each year’s button lighting up the parts of the map occupied by elephants during that year, to show the steady decline of elephants. Imagine a real, live African wildlife ranger in uniform brought to Toronto to talk about his adventures protecting elephants from poachers. Imagine displays of confiscated ivory figurines.

Imagine ... well, that’s the point: What’s needed, all that is needed, is imagination — that and compassion, and a financial commitment more in keeping with the ideals of fiscal responsibility so strongly preached by the politicians.

Right now Toronto Zoo has an unequalled opportunity to seriously educate the public about African elephants and thereby encourage donations to real conservation efforts. Is it up to the challenge?

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thika, Iringa and Toka Deserve Better, It's Time for Toronto to be Elephantless

Unlike some of my respected colleagues and friends I don’t automatically and irrevocably oppose zoos, or to be more accurate, I think there can be grounds for keeping animals captive that can be defended on moral, conservation and educational grounds. And I believe that a zoo, properly constituted, can serve the better interests of the environment and of the animals it contains. But I also believe that while claiming to do so, most zoo exhibits fail on all counts, succeeding only in being a source of entertainment, and perhaps profits. Which brings us to the African elephant display at the Toronto Zoo, near where I live.

Ontario is not Africa. It is not elephant-friendly, and last year Zoocheck Canada published a list of elephant deaths at the zoo, since 1984. That was the year that an elephant baby named T.W. died from stomach and bowel problems when only 2 days old. The next year Tantor, at a mere 20 years of age, died from heart failure following surgery to extract an infected tusk. In 1992 an elephant named Toronto, only 10 years old, died from toxemia. In 2006 Patsy, middle-aged at 39, was euthanized because of chronic pain from arthritis and foot infections. Next was Tequila, a year younger than Patsy, who, in 2008, was found lying on an electric fence, but the necropsy was unable to ascertain exact cause of death. Forty-year-old Tess fell against an electric fence in 2009 after being bumped by another elephant, both trying to reach the same pile of hay. She died from attempts to get back on her feet and from chronic wasting syndrome. A year later the zoo lost Tara, 41, after she fell. She could no longer stand because of arthritis in her hind legs, and yet she also was in too much pain to lie down.

On average wild African elephants live 60 years, according to the National Zoo’s website. Some survive even longer. Elephants kept in Canada are fortunate to make it into their 40s. There are now three female elephants left in Toronto Zoo, Thika, Iringa and Toka, all middle-aged, which means they almost certainly soon will face their own, most likely painful, deaths.

The zoo faces a quandary. Theoretically, in order to maintain official accreditation with the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) a zoo with elephants must maintain a “herd,” which CAZA defines as being three or more animals. OK, CAZA certainly is not rigorous in applying its standards, a bit of a joke, really, but Toronto Zoo is a very high-profile, municipally funded zoo, the largest in the country, and deeply part of CAZA. The zoo, which has a new board, has suggested spending $40 million to upgrade the elephant exhibit, including the addition of heated flooring in winter quarters. Currently the surviving elephants are housed in a barn in winter, allowed out on warmer days. But in winter “warmer” days tend to be damp, and still cold in comparison to the tropical and subtropical natural habitat of the species, hence the prevalence of arthritis in Canada’s captive elephants. Ice, snow and slush are poor substitutes for the rocks, sands and soils of Africa.

But wait. We just saw a municipal election where voters chose a mayor dedicated to cutting “wasteful” public spending. Toronto Zoo already wants to spend a lot of cash to host, for three years, giant pandas on loan from China and the zoo claims corporate sponsors and extra exhibit entry charges will cover that cost. Maybe, but $40 million more to house elephants in an inappropriate climate seems insane, and cruel. I know it is being justified on the usual grounds: education and conservation. But there is extremely little education involved in watching elephants confined to a half-hectare of bare sand. This is not what elephants look like, or how they behave, in the wild. Most visitors avoid even reading the information provided on signs.

And as for conservation, yes, the African elephant is endangered, but that’s because of intense demand for ivory (and subsequent poaching), and encroachment. Forty million bucks would go a long way to resolving such concerns if spent in Africa, but nothing done in Toronto will save the elephants. There is no need to breed more captive elephants — they really do know how to breed on their own, thank you. It is protection that they require.

But there is sanity at Toronto City Council, and several councilors, including Shelley Carroll, clearly understand that Toronto is no place for elephants. They want Toronto’s remaining three elephants to be sent to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in Northern California, while there is still time for them to add years and comfort to their lives, and have room to roam in a climate much like the one where their species naturally occurs. Other councilors are also on the side of the elephants.

In fact, as I will address anon, I think what is really required is a full assessment of what a zoo can be, what justifies my opening statement for this blog, that there is a morally supportable roll zoos can play in truly promoting conservation and education. But for now, at the very least, let us focus on saving the elephants who, as I write, huddle in a barn-like structure, far, far from home, or anything remotely like it.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Canada

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kid's Book on the Hidden World of Animals in Entertainment

Who knew? I certainly never dreamed that my longtime friend, Rob Laidlaw — spelunker, chartered biologist, world traveller and founder and fellow director of Zoocheck Canada — had this secret talent: He’s a terrific writer for kids. It’s a talent I learned about just two years ago with the publication of his first book, “Wild Animals in Captivity,” a finalist for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award for Nonfiction, placed on the School Library Journal’s best books of 2008 list and on the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association Top 40 list for 2008.

He’s done it again, this time with “On Parade: The Hidden World of Animals in Entertainment.” Rob’s technical writing and advocacy on behalf of animals have long been well known to me, and he and I often have assisted each other with various pedantic texts, but his ability to write for kids is something else and a talent I would not have predicted he possessed. I mean, he’s not a parent, he’s not a teacher or involved with any young people’s groups or associations, and yet he has this wonderful ability to connect with youthful readers. I’ve written professionally, always about animals and nature, for nearly 40 years and although I’ve occasionally tried to write for children I know that I can’t. It is not easy; it’s a very special and important talent.

Rob does not talk down to young readers and does not preach. He tells them specific things that have happened to animals used to entertain, or about things he has personally encountered, and lets his readers judge whether this is how animals should be treated. He also explains the more abusive things done to animals in order to make them perform for the movies, circuses, TV shows, rodeos, sporting contests and other forms of “entertainment.” He discusses all kinds of animals, even invertebrates and reptiles, without ever overstating the issue, or resorting to sensationalist rhetoric or sickeningly graphic photographs.

He also provides readers, including adults, with information that can help them determine for themselves if animals are abused in the interest of entertainment.

More important, I think, is that this book empowers young people by giving them various ideas on what they can do to help animals. The assumption that many would want to is based not only on what I’ve heard kids tell me, but by my memory of the frustrations of my own childhood, when I saw things I didn’t approve of, but never knew what I could do about them. Page 47 succinctly lists “ten ways to help animals in entertainment,” all quite available to teens and preteens.

Rob also provides information on what other individuals, and organizations, have done for animals and how to contact such groups.

I think one of the best features of the book is a two-page section entitled “arguments and answers.” Many defenders of animal abuse (although they never describe themselves in such fashion) have a tiresomely predictable litany of rationales they love to parade out to justify the use of animals in entertainment. Rob presents these arguments and succinct replies with information that kids easily can grasp and remember.

That said, I want to emphasize that “On Parade” is not a simple polemic. It is a concise exploration of the largely hidden world behind the very public view we get of animals used by various parts of the entertainment industry. Most contemporary kids have seen the Harry Potter movies, for example, but how many know that in April 2009, the falconer who provided the owls to the filmmakers pled guilty to 17 charges of cruelty to animals, his birds living in conditions one veterinarian characterized as “filthy” and “squalid”?

The book is filled with such information from around the globe, including places likely to be encountered during holidays, or featured on TV documentaries and uncritical news blurbs. “Maybe,” says Rob in the text, “it’s sometimes possible to train animals humanely, and there are probably some trainers who are thoughtful and responsible, but a growing mountain of evidence suggests that these cases are the exception, especially when wild animals are involved.”

That “growing mountain of evidence” is overwhelming even to those of us who daily toil on behalf of animals. There is nothing overwhelming about this book. It is clear, precise and provides what I think is just the right amount of information to help kids to have the knowledge and the empowerment necessary to best understand and respond to the issue. The book is fully illustrated with color photos, has a glossary of terms, costs less than $15 and is published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside and distributed by Ingram in the United States. It strikes me as being appropriate reading for children ages 8 and older

Barry Kent MacKay
BornFree USA
Zoocheck Canada