by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Or Is It Zoocheck, or Elephants, She Dislikes?
Toronto City Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby and I have never formally met, but I think she doesn’t like me. Or maybe it’s not that personal, and it’s just an organization I’m with she doesn’t like. The organization is Zoocheck-Canada, on whose board I happen to sit. But I could be wrong about both; sometimes I get the impression she doesn’t like elephants.
I hope not, because in addition to being an elected Toronto city councillor, she sits on the board of Toronto Zoo, at a time when it is deciding the fate of the last surviving elephants in the zoo’s possession.
While middle-aged, the three elephants have lived as long as elephants normally live in zoos. Experts who have studied the effects of captivity point out that the limitations imposed by the amount of space that zoos provide, especially in winter, eventually cause the animals to suffer from arthritis and other painful problems that don’t plague elephants in the wild. That is the result of being forced indoors for long times during cold periods. That has also got to be extremely boring and frustrating for animals as naturally active as elephants.
North America has two sanctuaries specifically capable of providing the climate and the space experts deem necessary to allow these elephants to live out their lives in greater comfort than zoos provide: The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas, Calif.
The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ standards acknowledge that elephants are social animals, thus zoos must keep three or more in order to be accredited. The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ standards are much the same. Mind you, they aren’t exactly rigorous about enforcing the standard.
Down to the last three elephants, the Toronto Zoo is at a crossroads and must either obtain more elephants or move the ones it has. At its next to last meeting, where I spoke in support of retiring the elephants and where PAWS’ Ed Stewart made it clear that zoos retiring elephants to their sanctuary were free to assist in assuring the best treatment for the animals, the zoo’s board decided to close the elephant exhibit, at least for now. Zoocheck is happy to send long-time City Councillor Raymond Cho, also a Toronto Zoo director, to San Andreas to see for himself exactly what can be provided for these elephants.
But at the last Toronto Zoo board meeting Luby and another councillor, Paul Ainslie, who happens to be vice chairman of the zoo board, walked out of the meeting before the matter could be voted on. That destroyed quorum and the meeting ended.
Why? Ainslie reportedly said that he feared that “it would impact on [Cho’s] ability to be impartial.” Luby reportedly said, “The optics are bad and Zoocheck has their own agenda.” She suggested Cho should pay his own way out of his office budget.
Zoocheck does have an agenda: to do what is best for captive wildlife! The city’s newly elected administration has done nothing but complain about spending, and the need to tighten its budgetary belt, so Zoocheck offered to foot the bill. No one from Zoocheck would even be there during the visit.
But Luby also said that an investigation of sanctuaries would be contrary to the previous decision to first consider accredited members of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) as potential recipients of the Toronto Zoo elephants. Surely a simple investigation of sanctuaries is the prudent course of action, especially considering that placement in an AZA facility is not a 100 percent certainty. If Luby doesn’t think Cho can be objective, Zoocheck would be happy to send her as well! Surely as an adult she trusts herself not to be influenced by who pays her airfare.
Neither PAWS nor The Elephant Sanctuary are zoos. As Zoocheck-Canada’s own Rob Laidlaw explained to the Toronto Zoo Board, zoos and sanctuaries have overlapping and complimentary interests and concerns, but nevertheless different and distinct mandates. Sanctuaries do not meet zoo standards and zoos do not meet sanctuary standards. In 2007 the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries was formed to address this very issue. Sanctuaries do not put animals on public display, but they do allow animals to live under conditions most suitable to their own interests.
I don’t give a damn who pays for what, but please, consider all the alternatives. Unless Luby and the rest of the Toronto Zoo board want the elephants to continue to suffer the problems associated, not by me or Rob Laidlaw, but by experts who have studied the problem, with life in zoos, they should at least consider what is in place. If Toka, Thika and Iringa, the three surviving elephants at Toronto Zoo, could speak, surely that is what they’d want.