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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!)

Elephants In and Out of the News

The Three Toronto Zoo Elephants Retire to a Better Life

Published 10/29/13

Here in Toronto on Monday, October 21, elephants were front page news. Well over 300 elephants had just died from poisoning in Zimbabwe—but they were not the elephants who were mentioned. The stories we read were about Toka, Thika and Iringa, the three middle-aged African elephants who were successfully moved by flatbed truck from the Toronto Zoo to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in California. The cost (I have heard a wide range of estimates, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars) was covered by American celebrity and animal activist, Bob Barker. Bravo, Bob!

Full disclosure: I am a founding director of Zoocheck, the Canadian organization that worked indefatigably in the face of ridicule and absurdly puerile name-calling by some zoo staff with Facebook access, plus opposition from a minority of city councillors representing the Toronto taxpayers who fund the zoo. Happily, a majority of councillors put logic and compassion first and continually supported the move to PAWS.

I am also the Canadian representative of Born Free USA, whose Executive Vice President, Adam Roberts, is President of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). He and I are also among the directors of Species Survival Network (SSN), which deals with concerns about the negative impact on species survival that derives from legal and illegal international trade. That includes elephants, shot and poisoned by poachers in huge numbers to generate money—like that used to partly fund the Al-Shabaab terrorists who wrought such horror at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya from September 21 to 24.

And finally, I’m a Toronto Zoo member. I’ve even worked there, albeit as a freelance artist (assigned to paint reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates), just before it opened in 1974. That assignment was given to me by the controversial first director of the zoo, Gunter Voss, who, in 1985, having left Toronto, was convicted of receiving kickbacks for animal purchases at an American zoo.

And so my emotions were extremely jumbled. On one hand, I shed tears for the nameless 300-plus elephants dying horribly to fund an illegal trade that killed at least 30,000 elephants in Africa last year alone, and thousands more Asian elephants in southern Asia. On the other hand, I shed tears of joy for the final arrival of Toka, Thika, and Iringa, to a place where they will not only have ample room and treatment that will include a heated pool and specially warmed “therapeutic floor” for Iringa’s arthritis, but the chance to befriend other African elephants in an environment far more suitable for elephants than Toronto. All of the denigrations various critics raised about moving the trio to PAWS—accredited by GFAS as an animal sanctuary—had been heard before by those of us who work to protect animals. They had been raised with regard to Maggie, an elephant stuck alone and deteriorating in an Alaskan Zoo, until she was finally air-lifted to PAWS, where she now has a warm friendship with Mara and Lulu, who constantly attend to her. And they are being heard now with regard to Lucy, the lone elephant in the Valley Zoo in Edmonton, Alberta.

Air transport had been an option for our three lady elephants from Toronto, but unnecessary delays prevented this from being carried out. The military, the only source of an adequate aircraft, understandably demands decisiveness. Even on the day of the move, the elephants were sadly delayed in their crates by last minute “concerns” that could have been addressed weeks earlier. I had trouble understanding how people expressing their “love” for Toka, Thika, and Iringa could cause them to spend eight or nine extra hours in their custom-made moving crates. It cost thousands more in legal fees, that day, to end the impasse.

Now, the zoo is unhappy at Mr. Barker’s negative comments in the media, and the zoo is actually quite justified in claiming that the success of the move was facilitated by the excellent job of training the lady elephants performed by Toronto Zoo staff. They deserve full credit for that.

But, let us hope that they can also start understanding what really happened. Elephants don’t do well in the conditions traditional zoos provide, especially in cold, damp, northern climates (like Toronto). Sanctuaries don’t serve to entertain the public—only to provide for the animals. Indeed, elephants die in zoos faster than they reproduce, leading to demand for fresh “stock” (which has ironically derived from orphans left over from poaching)—making zoo visitors the indirect beneficiaries of a major force driving our largest living land animal to extinction. Fortunately, some progressive zoos are phasing out the confinement of elephants, without the histrionics we have endured in Toronto over the last two years.

But, we can be effective only to the degree that we earn public support, ranging from modest donations to such generosity as Mr. Barker has provided. In addition to the good training at Toronto Zoo, other zoo workers were involved in the move, working cooperatively. Entertainment industries use animals primarily to entertain and/or make money. But there is room for compassion, and it is a growing public demand. Had Toronto Zoo had its way, not only would the elephants have cost taxpayers far more, but they would have had less room and they would have been expected to care for transitory young elephants as “surrogate aunts”—which would have served the industry, but not the elephants. Elephants create lasting matriarchal bonds and, by all accounts, yes: they can grieve at their losses.

It seems that, each day, I learn of another scientific study, another bit of academic research, showing that animals are cognitive, emotional beings, like us. They, like us, deserve better than is so often delivered. I don’t mind being called a do-gooder. I think doing bad hurts us all. Moving Toka, Thika, and Iringa – that was good.

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