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December 13, 2011 / V A Nichols

Toronto City Councilor changes his mind

Back to A councillor’s visit to an ‘elephant paradise’

A councillor’s visit to an ‘elephant paradise’

December 12, 2011

Raymond Cho

{{GA_Article.Images.Alttext$}}Councillors Raymond Cho, left, and Michelle Berardinetti at the animal sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Raymond Cho


Yes, I can definitely say I have visited an elephant paradise. Officially, its name is the Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas, Calif.

As we know, three elephants — Thika, Toka and Iringa — have to leave the Toronto Zoo because of our cold weather and lack of space at the zoo. The Toronto Zoo Board decided in May to send them to an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility that could better accommodate them.

Almost six months later, with no immediate plan to transfer the elephants, city council decided in October to send them to the PAWS Sanctuary instead. Initially, the zoo’s elephant keepers and other staffers opposed the move.

I was chair of the Toronto Zoo Board for four terms and am the longest serving member. I had great confidence in the direction of the zoo board and also favoured sending the elephants to an AZA-accredited zoo until this past spring, when I attended an international symposium on elephants in Toronto.

There, for the first time, I met experts who had nothing but praise for PAWS. So I changed my mind and decided we should be open to the possibility of sending them to the sanctuary instead.

On Sunday Nov. 6, I visited PAWS, where I found an elephant paradise. They have nine elephants, all getting better treatment than many seniors living in Toronto nursing homes! They are safe from poachers and other wildlife, are well provided with food and cared for by highly qualified zookeepers and a veterinarian on 24-hour call.

The sanctuary is 2,300 acres with hills, ponds, mud holes, trees, green fields — even an elephant whirlpool bath. The animals receive excellent treatment from PAWS founders Pat Derby and Ed Stewart.

When Pat and Ed first built the sanctuary, they slept in close quarters with the elephants for three years. The night I arrived in California, they invited me to dinner and I chatted with the PAWS founders, owners and Jackie, the veterinarian. Pat spoke about the elephants as if they were her grandchildren.

The following morning, I met with Pat, Ed and the veterinarian at the sanctuary and was amazed by what I saw.

On the other side of the fence were three African elephants. When Pat called Lulu — the most timid one — all them trumpeted and began running toward Pat. When timid Lulu lagged, another elephant, Maggie, waited for her and, after encouraging her, they slowly walked together toward Pat.

I also saw a bull named Prince, who had arrived at PAWS from a circus in July with a terrible rocking problem — elephants under stress typically exhibit repetitive behaviour such as rocking, swaying and head bobbing. Ed told me that rocking is common with elephants that had been in a circus. When Prince was young, he had been sent to a circus from the Portland Zoo, a member of AZA. Yet within six weeks of his arrival at PAWS, the rocking behaviour had subsided.

Maggie was from the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage and was so in such poor health that firefighters had to be called twice to lift her up after she fell. Later she was airlifted to the PAWS Sanctuary and is now happy and healthy.

Wanda was transferred to PAWS from the Detroit Zoo, another member of AZA. She was expected to live no more than six months, but has been living happily in the sanctuary for six years. The Detroit Zoo has given PAWS two awards for her treatment.

When I say PAWS is an elephant paradise, it is no exaggeration. I am grateful to it for agreeing to cover the costs of transporting the three Toronto Zoo elephants. PAWS is a respected member of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which is internationally renowned and recognized.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Jane Goodall: “My colleagues, elephant biologists Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole, who rank among the leading elephant experts in the world, have visited the PAWS sanctuary and call its elephant housing and care exemplary, among the best found anywhere. Perhaps more importantly, they say that the elephants at PAWS actually act like their wild counterparts, something that is very rare in captivity.”

Raymond Cho is the Toronto city councillor for Ward 42


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