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