Thursday, November 27, 2014

What is the Difference Between Elephants and Zoos?

On November 8, my friend and colleague, Julie Woodyer, was awarded the first ever Pat Derby Visionary Award by the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) "for her intellectual strength, passion and unfaltering perseverance." She needed all of that and then some—plus the help of many compassionate and thoughtful people, and the wonderful generosity of TV personality Bob Barker—to fight what I will collectively call "the zoo community," to do what should have been a no-brainer.

The late Pat Derby, co-founder of PAWS, was a mentor and inspiration to Julie, giving the honor a special meaning. PAWS, of course, is a magnificent sanctuary in California designed to accommodate animals who have long been used by the zoo and entertainment industries. PAWS provides them safe haven for the rest of their lives. The specific challenge that was so incredibly arduous was to have three elephants from Toronto Zoo moved not to a zoo facility, where they would have more limited quarters and still be on display, still used in the interests of humans—but to a sanctuary, where everything done would be in their interests, and only in their interests.

The animals were technically the property of the city of Toronto, which balked at the cost of renovating the animals' quarters, or of obtaining another elephant when one of the three died—which the city must do to meet accreditation standards. The standards indicate that, since elephants are "social," a zoo must have three or more (though exceptions are made).

The three African elephants were as old as Toronto Zoo elephants ever get, and showing their age. They simply couldn't get enough exercise in the limited space available to keep themselves healthy, and they had to endure cold Canadian winters.

Part of the story is told in previous posts on this blog.

While we are indebted, on behalf of the elephants, to those Toronto City councillors who made the effort of going beyond the anti-sanctuary rhetoric of the zoo community to determine for themselves what the best option would be for the aging elephants, others seemed mesmerized by the zoo community's oft-spoken claim that it knows best. Up to the last moment, we had a professor specializing in chicken welfare solemnly claim, backed by the full weight of his academic credentials, that the elephants would never make the journey alive.

Well, they did. More than a year later, they have the wonderful ability to roam over fields and hills, and do... well, do whatever they want to do... within an environment that, if not their African homeland, provides a far closer simile than any zoo-accredited facility available to elephants on this continent. They get top veterinary care and all of the amenities any zoo can offer.

And, last year, with good weather and giant pandas "on loan" (really rented at a high cost) on display, the Toronto Zoo nevertheless suffered a $8.3 million decline in revenue. People who care about animals may be getting the message about zoos.

With notable exceptions to be sure, the zoo community still seems not to grasp the difference between a real sanctuary and those facilities that claim to be sanctuaries, but provide inadequately for animals. These people may therefore assume that, unless accredited by a zoo, no animal should go there. But, there is an accreditation process for sanctuaries called the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). It is not possible to accredit a zoo as a sanctuary or a sanctuary as a zoo; they are two different things. And, as the Toronto experience shows, however much zoos accredited by the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) or its Canadian version, the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), may serve human interests, sanctuaries are designed and run to serve the interests of the animals themselves (if up to standards that do exist). That was Pat Derby's dream, now fully realized.

And, that brings us to one of those good news/bad news stories. Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo recently said that it would close its exhibit for elephants. That's the good news. For years, compassionate people with varying degrees of expertise have been concerned about the zoo, their concerns solidly backed up by a probing investigation by the Seattle Times and a citation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations under the Animal Welfare Act.

But, what of the two surviving Asian elephants, Bamboo, age 47, and Chai, age 35? The best thing for them would be to move to a sanctuary. The bad news is that, in a situation eerily similar to what we experienced with the Toronto Zoo, the Seattle Zoo seems to want to move the animals to—yep—another zoo. This is clearly not in the better interests of the animals themselves. But, the zoo does not seem to care. It claims to care, yet still insists that the elephants can't just be elephants; they must serve the forces of education and conservation, and be on display.

If only they could speak, Iringa, Toka, and Thika—the Toronto Zoo elephants now enjoying the space and freedom PAWS provides—might have something to say about all of that. Sadly, animals have no voice in their defense. It is up to us. No conservation function is served by imprisoning elephants. Ivory poachers and ivory buyers are the problem; imprison them. There is nothing that an elephant in an enclosure can teach you that can't be better learned many other ways. And no, we have no need to have them "on display." They've been on display, and now it should be their turn to have their interests served. They need to go to a sanctuary.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA