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An elephant at the Toronto Zoo stands in his pen on Oct. 14, 2013. Elephants Toka, Thika and Iringa have completed their journey from Toronto to a new sanctuary in California. (MICHELLE SIU FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
An elephant at the Toronto Zoo stands in his pen on Oct. 14, 2013. Elephants Toka, Thika and Iringa have completed their journey from Toronto to a new sanctuary in California. (MICHELLE SIU FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Supporters ‘elated’ as Toronto Zoo elephants reach California sanctuary Add to ...

It took two years of political wrangling, a flurry of last-minute legal manoeuvring involving one of the country’s most prominent lawyers and a 4,500-kilometre road trip, but three elephants from the Toronto Zoo have finally arrived at a California sanctuary.

A convoy of trucks carrying Iringa, Toka and Thika rolled in to the 2,300-acre preserve run by the Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS) around 5:30 p.m. local time on Sunday night. A small crowd had formed to greet them, including former game-show host and animal-rights activist Bob Barker, who has spent several years and a small fortune lobbying for the move.

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“We are just elated at this moment,” said Mr. Barker by phone. “This is one of the most gratifying campaigns I’ve ever been involved with simply because the Toronto Zoo made it so difficult for so long. They put every possible obstacle in our path. I have no respect for anyone associated with that zoo.”

Those difficulties lasted right up until the moment the elephants were loaded in their crates on Thursday morning. Julie Woodyer, campaigns director for Zoocheck Canada, the organization that spearheaded relocation efforts, hired high-profile lawyer Clayton Ruby to negotiate some 11th-hour delays.

“We had heard rumblings that there would be problems with loading,” said Ms. Woodyer. “The Canadian Food Inspection Agency wanted to review the whole transport plan. Clayton was at the zoo all day Thursday helping resolve the legal question, which involved getting the [federal] Justice Department to write a letter saying the CFIA had no jurisdiction.”

The elephant convoy finally hit the highway to California at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, after a 12-hour delay. It was the last hiccup of drama in a 2 1/2-year struggle to have the pachyderms moved to a warmer climate.

The zoo’s board of management decided in May of 2011 to close its elephant exhibit over concerns about the health of the animals and the cost of building new facilities.

Originally scheduled for the summer of 2012, the relocation was postponed several times amid intense acrimony between the Toronto Zoo and several groups heading up the move. At various times, zoo officials made dubious claims about health problems at the PAWS sanctuary while relocation backers countered that zoo employees were intentionally sabotaging the transportation plans. The move was the subject of two city council votes and countless hours of debate at the Toronto Zoo Board of Management.

“It’s been emotionally draining,” said Matthew Berridge, a keeper at the Toronto Zoo and vice-president of the zoo workers union, CUPE Local 1600. “Really, we do just want to move on from all this. We always wanted the best for the elephants. If they can leave those trucks alive and comfortable, then that’s for the best. We loved these elephants so much we wanted them to have the best home ever.”

Mr. Berridge said deep cuts are at the heart of the elephant issue. Where the city once provided more than 60 per cent of the Toronto Zoo’s budget, that share has declined to around 25 per cent. “In the Ford years alone, we’ve had close to 20 per cent in budget cuts,” said Mr. Berridge. “When that happens, we begin to lose animals. We can’t afford to do the things we need to do.”

He isn’t surprised by Mr. Barker’s attitude toward the zoo, saying that the sanctuary needs to beat up on zoos to keep donations coming in.

“The sadder the story, the more people donate,” he said, “that’s the business model of the sanctuary. I don’t think Bob Barker ever spent any time at our zoo.”

The zoo sent three employees on the exhausting 4,500-kilometre road trip to California.

“They’re emotionally drained,” said Mr. Berridge. “It’s been hard for everybody. When you work with elephants, they get in your soul somehow.”

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