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