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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!)

CAZA/AZA Hypocrisy is of Elephantine Proportions

Why zoos are no friends to Calgary Zoo's elephants

Published 04/10/14

Until last fall, for several years, my colleagues and I were engaged in what became a deeply contentious battle (read more here) to rescue three mature female African savannah elephants from the Toronto Zoo—elephants that the Toronto Zoo itself decided could no longer be kept. Put simply, we wanted to move the elephants to a world-renowned sanctuary, Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) ARK 2000, in California. The City of Toronto owns the zoo’s live animal collection, which included these elephants, and they decided to send the elephants to the sanctuary, while the Toronto Zoo wanted them sent to another zoo. American celebrity Bob Barker generously offered to pay the transport costs, should the elephants go to the sanctuary.

But, all hell broke loose as the zoo staff, their colleagues, and their friends instigated an extreme campaign to discredit PAWS, Bob Barker, Zoocheck, and anyone else who did not share their opinion. They argued that the animals absolutely must go to an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facility, or a proposed elephant center in Florida. The various zoo associations weighed in as well, claiming that the elephants would be much better off at a zoo—and they lobbied Toronto City Council to reverse its decision to send the elephants to PAWS.

Opponents of the city’s decision noted that PAWS was not AZA-accredited… but AZA doesn’t accredit sanctuaries—only public zoos. It has a separate catch-all “certification” category, but getting certified means that the facility has to agree with AZA codes and policies. That is not something a true sanctuary can do, because some AZA policies are quite contrary to what sanctuaries value. So, PAWS is not AZA-accredited, but it is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). In my opinion, GFAS standards are far higher than those of the zoo association, or those of its Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA).

The battle got nasty at times. Zoocheck’s Julie Woodyer, who worked diligently to overcome every conceivable (and seemingly inconceivable) hurdle the zoo community could erect, was personally ridiculed in a childish You Tube skit called “The Wizard of PAWS,” in which she was “the Greedy Witch,” and city councillors (including those who took the trouble to educate themselves and therefore supported moving the elephants) were similarly mocked. More serious were accusations that PAWS posed a serious disease risk. There was also a dire warning that the elephants could not possibly survive the long drive across the country. (I should note, in passing, that no such fuss attended the deaths of the previous seven elephants at Toronto Zoo.)

PAWS personnel told me that they had never encountered hostility and obfuscation to this degree. Indeed, it is the practice of PAWS to work cooperatively with zoos to provide a wonderfully supportive environment for captive elephants in their declining years.

Now, this month, with no opposition and very little fanfare or media attention, the three Asian elephants at the Calgary Zoo were moved in exactly the same way, and approximately the same distance, to “Elephant Trails” in Washington, DC’s Smithsonian National Zoological Park. It’s AZA-accredited, but what does it provide? Well, it “spans 8,943 square meters total” and the outdoor “exhibit” is 7,711 square meters: nearly two whole acres. (Mind you, that’s divided among seven elephants.) The Toronto elephants now reside in an 80-acre enclosure and they appear to be loving it. Best of all, there is room to expand in the future. It is not the tiny, treeless expanse of flat sand that the Calgary elephants will have, but an area of rolling hills and copses of trees the elephants are free to nibble on. They can walk over a hill and be out of sight, all day long. One of the most serious threats to zoo elephants is lack of exercise on naturally variable surfaces. Toronto’s three elephants were sadly out of shape when they arrived, but muscle tone is now developing. Elephants need to take long walks to maintain good health—and at PAWS, they can.

Elephant Trails boasts of “ample” space for training. PAWS elephants don’t ever have to be trained. Both facilities provide indoor heated floors, indoor rubber flooring, pools, and veterinary care. But, where the two facilities differ, PAWS better suits the needs of the elephants. The elephants come first at PAWS. Elephant Trails “allows Zoo visitors the opportunity to get an up-close view of these incredible animals and learn about zoo care, elephant physiology, cognition, and social behavior.” PAWS allows elephants to be elephants: to roam, as they have been designed to do by millions of years of evolution. It is there for them, not for human visitors.

I don’t understand Toronto Zoo’s fanaticism, but I suspect the problem was that they can see some very bold writing on the wall—that the more we learn about animals, the more we care about their well-being. And, if we really care, we don’t want those species who fare poorly to be held in harmfully limited confinement so we can “get an up-close view.”

I wish the three Calgary elephants well, but I am sad that they will never roam the hilly acres of the PAWS sanctuary. The three Toronto elephants don’t care a fig about some piece of paper from AZA headquarters; they deserve the space they now have to roam.

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