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