This is the second in a 5 part series on animals that made the Toronto news in 2012. Read Part 1 here. While these stories are local, the issues they present are global, each one asking us to scrutinize and reassess our relationship with captive wild animals.

The Ongoing Saga of the Toronto Zoo Elephants



If you haven’t been following along, you will have no idea how three middle aged elephants have divided the animal-loving, zoo-going community in the Toronto region over the last two years. It’s a confusing tale, but I’ll try to give you a summary here.

Three female African Elephants –  Iringa(43), Toka (41), Thika (33) – live at the Toronto Zoo.  Toka and Iringa were born wild in Mozambique. After being orphaned during government culls, they came to live in Toronto in 1974, the year the zoo opened.  Thika was born at the zoo in 1980 to parents Tantor and Tequila.  As the last remaining elephants in Toronto, the “three ladies,” as they are affectionately known, have become the darlings of public affection in Toronto.



But the elephants are aging and animal professionals are becoming more aware that cold northern climes and small spaces are not suitable habitat for captive elephants. Plus, elephants are expensive to keep; the three elephants cost the zoo over $600,000 per year.

So, on May 12, 2011 the Board of Management of the Toronto Zoo made the decision to discontinue the elephant program and to move the three elephants to a more suitable facility as soon as possible. Zoo staff was asked to do a review to determine the best place for the elephants.

So the zoo set to work to find a new home for the three ladies.  In October they announced that they were in promising talks with a U.S.  zoo that seemed willing to take the elephants.  Four days later came the shock.

Here is Meredith Martin of TVO explaining what happened next (bold mine):

On October 24, 2011, Toronto City Councillor Michelle Berardinetti put forward a surprise motion, seconded by Councillor Raymond Cho (Ward 42, Scarborough-Rouge River), proposing that city council vote that the elephants be sent to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), in … California. And when council handily passed the motion, it did something it had never done before: It took a decision out of the hands of the trained professionals at the Toronto Zoo and the Toronto Zoo’s Board of Management, and made it a political one. And this is why the decommissioning of the elephant exhibit and the relocation of the “three ladies” has become so contentious.

Unsurprisingly, pandemonium ensued. Accusations were flung. Petitions were started. Lines were drawn in the sand.



Then in March 2012, to make matters messier (and the PAWS pot sweeter), Bob Barker, a PAWS supporter, informed the city council  that he, personally, would pay the approximate $880,000 to transport the elephants to PAWS. While certainly generous, this was done without consulting zoo professionals or confirming the best option for the elephants.

During this time, the AZA got wind of the whole debacle and took swift action. Upon learning about the council’s unilateral action and hearing that the elephants were being shipped to PAWS, a non-accredited facility, the AZA revoked the Toronto Zoo’s accreditation. It seemed they were no longer comfortable with the zoo’s ability to manage its business affairs in keeping with best practices. (It should be noted here that the AZA had no quarrel with how the zoo cared for its animals.) This was an enormous blow to the zoo, throwing into question its role in inter-zoo breeding programs.

Thika demonstrates her training. This behavior makes foot care an unstressful for the animal

Thika demonstrates how she lifts her foot for footcare.

Meanwhile, as relations between the zoo and the city council deteriorated, the zoo veterinarian and animal care staff raised concerns about PAWS – PAWS lack of forthrightness in turning over elephant medical records; delays in issuing import permits (which are now expired); the presence of tuberculosis in at least one PAWS elephant;  that the crate PAWS provided for Toka was too small; and that the cargo plane PAWS had arranged was not sufficiently pressurized.

However, despite these concerns, this past November the council reaffirmed the motion and ordered the elephants to be moved to PAWS by December 31, 2012. In a rather bizarre turn, the motion also called on the Edmonton Valley Zoo (some 3,000 km west) to ship their 37 year-old Indian elephant, Lucy, to PAWS as well.  To which the Edmonton Mayor politely responded, butt out.

In December, it was pointed out by Toronto Zoo CEO John Tracogna that the Dec 31 deadline wasn’t feasible.

“We’re looking at a spring date. That seems to be the next target,’’ he told the meeting. Afterward, Tracogna reiterated that the zoo is abiding by council’s wish and working to get the transfer finished.

And that’s where the saga stands today.

Whether one believes the elephants should go to PAWS, stay where they are, or go to a different facility; whether or not the zoo staff was dragging its feet in finding a new home (as the council suggests); whether or not the elephants were draining zoo and city coffers with their expensive upkeep — one solid fact remains:

The welfare of these animals should have been left in the hands of the animal professionals who know them best — their keepers and veterinarian.

And while the city and Board of Management of the zoo certainly have the right to make financial decisions with regard to the zoo and specific exhibits, no politician or television personality has the right or expertise to determine how these three intelligent social animals — Toka, Thika, and Iringa — should live out the last 20 or 30 years of their lives.  Toronto City Council, you blew it.


For more reading: 

Meredith Martin’s 4-part series on the Toronto Zoo elephants provides the most clear-headed overview and analysis of this story.

Also see CBC’s Fifth Estate: The Elephant in the Room


Part 3: Flying Monkeys