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May 13, 2011 / V A Nichols

Elephants to leave Toronto Zoo

Published On Thu May 12 2011

Donovan Vincent Staff Reporter

The Toronto Zoo's elephants, from left, Toka, Iringa and Thika

The ladies are on the move.

Toka, Thika and Iringa, the three female elephants that remain at the Toronto Zoo, will be sent somewhere more comfortable to retire, following a decision by the zoo board Thursday.

The board hopes to send them to a zoo accredited by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). But Joe Torzsok, chair of the board, said the vote doesn’t close the door to alternatives.

“This doesn’t rule out the option of a sanctuary,” such as those in Tennessee and California, Torzsok said. The zoo approved a motion Torzsok put forward that basically said if an accredited zoo home can’t be found, a sanctuary should be considered.

But after the vote AZA official Martha Fischer said there’s an “extremely high probability” the trio can be placed in one their approved facilities.

In support of sending the elephants to an AZA facility, zoo vice chair and city councillor Paul Ainslie joked that “when I retire, I want to go to a licensed nursing home.”

The zoo’s animal care and research committee will consult with the AZA about finding a suitable home and get back to the zoo board with a decision.

A move by city councillor and zoo board member Glenn De Baeremaeker to include sanctuaries in the initial search for a new home for the trio was voted down.

The sanctuary-versus-zoo issue was a major source of friction at Thursday’s meeting, with animal rights activists supporting sending the elephants to the PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) facility in California, saying the centre is in a warm climate and provides ample space for the animals to roam.

But a Toronto zoo staff recommendation suggested there are numerous questions about the standard of care at that facility and another sanctuary in Tennessee that also isn’t AZA approved.

“There are too many unknowns involved as far as I’m concerned,” Eric Cole, supervisor of the zoo’s elephant enclosure told reporters.

“The sanctuaries don’t have any standards that they publish that are equivalent to AZA standards,” Cole said.

During a break in the meeting Ed Stewart, founder of PAWS, defended his institution in an interview, saying the “philosophy” at PAWS is different from that of AZA zoos.

“We’re not in the exhibition business, or animals-on-display business . . . we’re not interested in AZA accreditation,” Stewart said.

His facility offers about 56 hectares of space for elephants, eight of which call PAWS home. Toronto’s outdoor elephant paddocks are less than a hectare in total.

St. Catharines family Jordan Lukings, his wife Jacqueline and 10-month old daughter Morgan were at the zoo Thursday visiting the elephants.

Jordan said he’s saddened the pachyderms are leaving, adding it’s a shame the zoo will be losing such a major attraction, especially for children.

But both he and Jacqueline said they’ll still visit regardless.

The future of the elephant exhibit became an issue after seven elephants died at the zoo since 1984.

Consultants were hired to explore the best options, and a staff report released last week recommended phasing out the elephant exhibit. It concluded that, given the estimated $16.5 million cost of building more appropriate facilities, and future operating costs of $930,000 a year, keeping them wasn’t the best option.

The consulting report said the elephants need a new holding and exercise barn four times the size of the existing barn, and two new outdoor paddocks that would triple the current open-air space.

The existing herd, though healthy, is aging. Toka is about 41 years old; Thika, 30; Iringa, 42. Pachyderms are highly social animals who need companions to be happy, and in a short time the zoo could be below the AZA’s minimum standard of three.

The staff report also recommended the zoo “reassess its options” after a U.S. study on captive elephant care is completed in 2013. Other zoo animals could use the elephant enclosure in the interim, the report said.

Transferring the elephants will cost $30,000 to $50,000, and the staff report says it could take up to two years to prepare the beasts for a move.

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