We were right, zoos were wrong: Elephants better off

by Barry Kent MacKay

Now that emotive rhetoric has faded and the third anniversary fast approaches, let us pause to think about what happened three years ago this fall. Toronto Zoo had three African elephants: Toka, Iringa, and zoo-born Thika. Last year, Iringa, who had arrived with serious, increasingly painful arthritis (a common condition in zoo elephants), was euthanized after two years at Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a sanctuary in California. The elephants were moved to PAWS after a battle between Zoocheck and other animal protectionists, Toronto City Council, and the zoo community.

Out of concern for the animals, animal protectionists wanted the aging elephants—who could no longer be kept at the zoo, as the budget did not allow for necessary caging improvements—moved to a sanctuary to live out their lives in the best conditions possible. The zoo community also claimed to want what was best for the animals, but that had to be a facility accredited with the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) or its Canadian equivalent, CAZA.

City hall had the final say because the zoo is municipally owned. It also wanted what was best for the elephants.

Who to believe?

AZA insisted that the elephant trio go to an AZA-accredited facility. Toronto Zoo wanted that to be the National Elephant Center (NEC) in Florida, which wasn’t even built at the time. Zoo community arguments often became personal, with mocking videos, snide social media attacks, and absurdities. One zoo employee, addressing a Toronto City Council committee, equated stereotypic behavior in zoo elephants with humans shifting their weight while lining up at a grocery store check-out.

While content to see other elephants moved cross-continent from one zoo-accredited facility to another, we were told that Toronto’s elephants could not survive a similar journey.

The most serious charge was that PAWS elephants suffered infectious diseases. Dr. Graham Crawshaw, senior veterinarian for Toronto Zoo, said the NEC would be the safest place for the elephants, where they would never be exposed to infectious diseases. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said that moving the elephants to PAWS would be “stupid” and would cost the zoo its credibility.

Sure enough, AZA said that it would pull the Toronto Zoo’s accreditation, even though the zoo is Canada’s largest: the country’s “premier” zoo. Indeed, AZA did pull accreditation (since restored, after the successful move).

Meanwhile, NEC has closed down, barely after opening. Why? Too many elephant deaths, from various causes—including infectious diseases.

Elephants can live longer in the wild than in zoos, and I feel badly for the NEC elephants, of course. However, as we explained at the time, sanctuaries are different from zoos. Sanctuaries can also be accredited under the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) and have a different mandate than zoos. (Full disclosure: Born Free USA’s CEO, Adam M. Roberts, is president of GFAS.) Sanctuaries are there to care for animals—not to do zoological research, education, public outreach, entertainment, or to promote the zoo industry.

Three years later, Toronto City Council should know: it made the right decision.

Originally published 09/26/2106 by Born Free USA.