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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

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!)

What Elephants Have Taught Me About Zoos: Part 2

Zoos and Hypocrisy

Published 09/11/13

Last week, I explained how a group of European zoos took credit from those who deserved it by making exaggerated or false claims about what they called the “top ten mammal species reliant on zoos.”

But that’s Europe. What has truly disturbed me this past year or two has unfolded in major part almost literally in my own back yard. Put simply, Toronto Zoo, Canada’s largest zoo (which is also owned by the city), is down to its last three elephants. These three female African savannah elephants are around 40 years old: the oldest age any elephant has ever reached in this zoo. (The two elephants born in the wild were born in 1969 and 1970, while the captive-born elephant was born in 1980.)

The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) has decided that a zoo must have a minimum of three elephants in order to maintain accreditation—and, judging from past experience, two of the Toronto elephants are on borrowed time. The city would have to pay for more elephants and the necessary upgrades. The city refuses.

This is where the story gets bizarre. The zoo refused an immensely generous offer from American celebrity, Bob Barker, to pay the huge amount needed to move the animals to a sanctuary where elephants would have vast areas to roam.

I won’t go into their arguments here, except to say that it boils down to the sanctuary not being accredited as a zoo. That is because it isn’t a zoo. It is a sanctuary, with an entirely different mandate to do what is best for the animals. And, as a sanctuary, it is fully accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Instead, Toronto Zoo wanted to move the elephants to a zoo-accredited facility, not yet even built, in Florida. Here, they would have had less room—and, with neighboring elephants coming and going, less social stability than at PAWS, the intended sanctuary in California. There was no money to do this.

I will await another time or venue (I am hoping for a book!) to describe the incredible degree of silly childishness that accompanied Toronto Zoo’s objections. But, in the end, City Council—some members of which had actually visited PAWS—voted, on two separate occasions, to take Bob Barker up on his extraordinary offer.

That’s all prelude to a recent development. Calgary Zoo has a similar dilemma, being down to four elephants. Perhaps because of the absurdity in Toronto, and no doubt as a result of more money to pay costs, it will dutifully send one elephant to the Tampa Zoo in Florida and three to a zoo-accredited facility in the Washington, D.C. area.

Fine; I think they’d be better off at PAWS, but they are their elephants, it’s their money, and they are recognizing that elephants are not suited to Canadian winters (unlike the Valley Zoo in Edmonton, which has only one lone elephant that it is determined to keep). But, guess what. CAZA has deemed that THAT elephant, Lucy, does not need elephant companions—so, the three-elephant-minimum rule has been waived, and the zoo has maintained its accreditation.

Anyway, while we had hoped that the Toronto Zoo elephants could be flown to PAWS, we needed military cooperation (because they have the only planes big enough)—but the military backed off from all of the negative publicity. In the past, zoos and circuses have had no issue with trucking elephants across the continent, but, suddenly, we were told that the PAWS sanctuary is too far away!

According to a quick bit of Googling, the distance from Calgary to Washington, D.C. is about 3,700 klm. The distance from Toronto to the PAWS sanctuary in Galt, California, is approximately 4,140 klm. Yep… that’s farther. And, the distance from Calgary to Tampa, Florida, where “Spike,” the bull Asian elephant is to be trucked, is about 4450 klm. That’s even farther. CAZA has said that being an Asian elephant makes Spike easier to move, but being a 32 year old male surely makes the move more challenging than is true of the older, female animals in Toronto. In fact, Spike was born in Florida, at the Miami Zoo, and moved to Calgary in 1992. No one said it was too far back then.

Yes, I know that these distances are not exact, and that many factors come into play. I’m certainly worried about the safety of all of these animals, but that’s the point. The zoo community continues to show that their concern has less to do with elephant welfare and more to do with denigrating animal protectionists. They have made things up as they go along, and this is just the latest example.

Next week, I’ll finish this “blog trilogy” with an example of species put at risk by placing the interests of zoos ahead of the welfare of individual animals, or even of entire species.

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