October 21, 2013

After a nearly 3 year battle over the disposition of the Toronto elephants the issue was finally put to bed on October 20, 2013 when the Toronto Zoo's three African elephants arrived at the world-renowned Performing Animal Welfare Society’s (PAWS) ARK 2000 sanctuary in San Andreas, California. The elephants, Toka, age 43, Thika, age 33, and Iringa, age 44, will eventually share an 80-acre natural habitat with the sanctuary’s three resident African elephants, Mara, Maggie and Lulu.

The elephants traveled from Toronto to San Andreas, California by truck. They were accompanied by an expert team with a combined 120 years of experience and the transfer of more than 50 elephants to their credit. During the trip the elephants were monitored by the team through the use of infra-red cameras in each elephant crate. They appeared to do well and arrived at the PAWS sanctuary without incident.

The decision to terminate the Toronto Zoo's elephant program and to send the elephants to another facility was made by the Toronto Zoo Board of Management in May 2011. The decision was based on a recommendation made in a March 2011 report that cited the high cost of building a new elephant facility, among other issues.

Nearly five months after the Toronto Zoo BOM decision, the zoo was unable or unwilling to identify any potential recipient facilities, so, 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.

Once the Toronto City Council decision was made, zoo staff, supporters and a variety of zoo industry organizations began a campaign to stop the transfer to the PAWS facility. They pulled every trick they could think of, but their arguments didn't gain traction. More than a year after the first decision, the issue was brought back to City of Toronto Council and Council again voted overwhelmingly to send Toronto's elephants to the PAWS sanctuary. Despite this, opponents of the move continued their campaign to stop the transfer, right up until the moment the elephants left zoo property.

It's unfortunate that opponents tried to derail the move to the PAWS sanctuary. They put their own emotional needs ahead of the well-being of the elephants. Remarkably, while they claimed they were concerned for Toka, Iringa and Thika, not a word was heard from these people in previous years when four of the Toronto Zoo's elephants died in a four year span.

The PAWS' sanctuary now cares for 11 elephants at its 2,300-acre, natural habitat sanctuary that features grassy, rolling hills and fresh vegetation for natural foraging. The elephants include three female Asian elephants (Annie, Wanda and Gypsy), two male Asian elephants (Prince and Nicholas), and the six African elephants. The elephants have been relocated from circuses and zoos, including the Alaska Zoo, and Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoos such as the Detroit Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, and the Milwaukee Zoo.

To date, 25 zoos have closed, or will be closing, their elephant exhibits, for reasons ranging from lack of funding for exhibit expansions to welfare concerns such as inadequate space, unsuitably cold climates, and insufficient social groups. Other zoos are enlarging older exhibits to provide more space for their elephants.

Hopefully, the transfer of the Toronto elephants will help facilitate a reevaluation of elephant keeping and lead to improvements in how captive elephants are housed and cared for.


Toronto's Elephants Going to PAWS!

For more than a year Zoocheck has been campaigning to finalize the move of Toronto's elephants to the PAWS sanctuary in California. As you know, Toronto City Council voted in October 2011 to send the elephants to the sanctuary. It's been a difficult process rife with challenges, but most of the hurdles are now gone.

On November 27th Toronto City Council reaffirmed, with the passage of some very strong motions, their commitment to act in the best interest of Toronto's elephants by voting overwhelmingly (32 - 8) in favour of sending Toka, Thika and Iringa to the PAWS sanctuary in California.

So November 27th was a great day for the Toronto elephants and for elephants everywhere. What is especially gratifying is that Council didn't buy into the campaign of fear being waged by opponents of the move. Council considered all of the concerns that were raised, including disease, and made the best decision for the elephants.

We would like to thank the many thousands of Toronto residents (and others) and the many experts and organizations who spoke out. And, of course, we would also like to thank the exceptionally thoughtful and compassionate politicians who did their part to give Toka, Thika and Iringa a decent retirement in a natural home.

There are still some challenges ahead, but we're confident the elephants will soon be enjoying their new home at the PAWS sanctuary.