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November 25, 2011 / V A Nichols

Once again, for zoos, it is not about the animals, it is about the industry

 Zoo loses face, along with its elephants

Zoo loses face, along with its elephants

November 25, 2011

Donovan Vincent

{{GA_Article.Images.Alttext$}}If the Association of Zoos and Aquariums decides to yank the Toronto Zoo’s accreditation, it could have broad effects on its operations, including what animals it is allowed to keep on loan from other zoos.

COLIN MCCONNELL/TORONTO STAR

Let’s hope the road ahead for Toka, Thika and Iringa won’t be as bumpy as the one their masters at the Toronto Zoo now face.

Not only must zoo officials try to figure out the logistics for getting the three aging female elephants safely to a sanctuary in California by the end of next April. They’ll also have to figure out how to repair damaged relations with the bodies that provide the zoo with its coveted accreditation.

On Thursday, after a raucous five-hour public meeting, the zoo board voted to go along with city council’s October decision to send the elephants to the un-accredited PAWS sanctuary near San Andreas, Calif.

The sanctuary is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Maryland-based organization that certifies hundreds of zoos in North America, including Toronto’s.

The AZA has threatened to withdraw Toronto’s accreditation in large part because it believes the “experts’’ — keepers and managers at the zoo — are best positioned to decide the fate of the animals, not city councillors. The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) has raised similar concerns.

But proponents of the move to the sanctuary argue city council was right to do what it did because it owns the zoo.

Now some zoo officials are worried that a potential loss of accreditation could, for example, force Toronto to give up animals on loan from other accredited zoos. Of the Toronto Zoo’s 5,000 animals, 194 are on loan from other institutions, including Indian rhinoceros, Komodo dragons and snow leopards.

But some people insist the certification threat is simply hot air, an attempt by the AZA to gum up the process involving a sanctuary of which it doesn’t approve.

Whichever side is correct, CAZA and the AZA are demanding answers about the impending elephant move, and they also want to know who’s in charge of making decisions about the zoo’s animals.

Toka, Thika and Iringa are leaving mostly because the money isn’t here to build the new enclosures they need.

In spring, when the zoo board voted to close down the elephant exhibit, staff were instructed to first look for an AZA-accredited facility for the animals. Only after that option was exhausted was a sanctuary supposed to be on the table.

But in October, when zoo staff still hadn’t announced where the trio was going, city council stepped in.

The council vote has infuriated zoo staff — keepers and zoological experts who are angered they didn’t get a major say in the final decision. And zoo board members, such as Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, say the board’s authority was usurped by council.

Much of the anxiety is centred on the belief that the rigorous standards the AZA expects its members to meet aren’t in place at PAWS, an AZA official said this week. But unlike AZA centres, PAWS doesn’t believe in breeding elephants, a major reason behind its decision not to join the accrediting body.

“We can’t speak to the quality of care (at PAWS),’’ says AZA spokesperson Steve Feldman.

“Their business model is to attack (AZA-sanctioned) zoos, in close collaboration with animal rights groups, and use that pressure to pry those animals away from zoological institutions in order to fill their elephant barns.

“We don’t think that’s right,’’ Feldman adds.

Founded in 1924, the AZA accredits about 225 zoos and animal centres mostly in the United States, with five in Canada, including Toronto. That’s a small fraction of the roughly 2,600 wildlife exhibitions, including circuses, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses.

A major program in which AZA members participate is the “Species Survival Plan,” a sophisticated tracking system that includes “genetic modelling’’ for various animals.

“Let’s say you had two rhinos here and three there, another six across the country, and you tried to manage them separately. You’d have in-breeding or no breeding, and pretty soon no rhinos,’’ explains Feldman.

But as part of the Species Survival Plan, AZA members share genetic information about one another’s animals.

“Animals are moved across the country for breeding, but also to form stable social groups,’’ explains Feldman.

“And in that way we’re striving for a genetically diverse, self-sustaining, healthy population. That’s repeated for more than 500 species, many of them threatened, endangered or extinct in the wild.

“And if you think about it, I’m not going to send you my rhino unless I know you meet the same high standards I do. That’s where accreditation and those high standards are so important,’’ Feldman says.

In addition, the AZA’s 70-page Accreditation Standards and Related Policies are the most comprehensive and “toughest in the world,’’ Feldman argues. They include requirements that member zoos maintain detailed records for animals loaned out and brought in, comprehensive plans to enhance breeding, conservation and health of their animals, and formal procedures for the use of veterinary drugs.

But AZA or CAZA accreditation doesn’t guarantee quality, counters Julie Woodyer, a director with animal rights group Zoocheck.

“It’s not a reliable measurement for how good or bad a facility is,’’ she says, pointing out for example that at the Calgary Zoo, a CAZA- and AZA-accredited facility, an external audit last year found several unpublicized cases of animals inadvertently killed or injured by unqualified staff or poorly designed enclosures.

“The point is, you need to look at each facility on the merits of the facility, and that’s what city council did prior to making its decision on PAWS,’’ Woodyer argues.

As for accreditation, what is known is that on average, one AZA facility a year will lose its certification. ZooMontana did so in May, largely over financial problems.

There was an executive shake-up as a result and the facility is fighting hard to earn back its accreditation next year. It had been an AZA member for 10 years before losing accreditation.

In a telephone interview, Jeff Ewelt, ZooMontana’s new executive director, said that aside from the “loss of credibility’’ that followed, his zoo has had to send four grizzly bears — three cubs and an older one — to another AZA facility because federal law requires they be cared for in such facilities.

Back in Toronto, zoo board vice-chair and city councillor Paul Ainslie is convinced that if Toronto loses its accreditation over the elephant issue, it could have an impact on the yet to be finalized giant panda exchange with China.

“AZA accreditation goes a long way to enhancing your reputation for good animal care and programming,’’ Ainslie says.

***

(emphasis added–VA)

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