Three Toronto Zoo elephants are finally on their way to a California sanctuary after years of delays to their journey.
The convoy of trucks carrying Iringa, Toka and Thika and two zookeepers got on the road at about 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, more than 12 hours after they were put into their crates.
Iringa and Toka were in the first truck, followed by Thika in another one.
“They did exceptionally well today,” said Toronto Zoo spokeswoman Jennifer Tracey. “We are not only proud of Toronto Zoo staff … but also very proud of the elephants.”
Iringa, Toka and Thika – who had been standing in their crates since 9:30 a.m. – were expected to be shipped to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) facility at about 11 a.m. But new concerns about how an arthritic elephant would fare in a specially designed crate delayed the pachyderms’ departure once the elephants had entered and were observed in their crates by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The CFIA, which regulates animal transport in Canada, has been following the plans for the move and pointing out potential problems. Spokesman Guy Gravelle confirmed the agency sent staff to the zoo to ensure all safety measures were followed.
Matthew Berridge, vice-president of the Toronto Zoo workers union, said the CFIA was seriously worried that Iringa, 44, would not survive the land transport due to arthritis and other issues in one of her feet.
“There’s a lot of liability that goes along with this transport, so everybody needs to be sure they were ready to hand over and accept those liabilities,” Mr. Berridge said.
Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who first introduced a motion in council to transfer the elephants to PAWS after the zoo and the city decided to phase out the elephant exhibit, said there was a misunderstanding with the legal documents detailing who is responsible for what.
“It is something that should have been worked out between the CEO of the zoo and PAWS and the city prior to today,” she said, adding that everything was cleared between lawyers for PAWS and the city.
“Our legal staff was there and they of course went through the whole transportation plan again,” she said.
“There was just another delay tactic, same stuff they had been talking about before,” said Julie Woodyer, PAWS spokeswoman and campaign director for the watchdog group Zoo Check, referring to the zoo workers union’s earlier concerns about the choice of land transport over air. “We had already sorted out this issue with the CFIA,” she said.
Mr. Berridge said the transport plans were delayed as lawyers and zoo workers waited to hear from the city whether CFIA’s concerns would change the transport plans for the elephants. A request sent to the city to hand over the elephants to PAWS was approved at about 3 p.m., he said.
“For most of the day, we were sitting around waiting to see what was going on because nobody really knew,” Mr. Berridge said.
In the meantime, the elephants remained standing in their crates. Toka and Iringa were lifted onto the truck transporting them; Thika’s crate was loaded at around 7 p.m.
“At this point, on a day like today, I have no idea how long [it will take] … but it seems to be a slow process,” Mr. Berridge said.
Three Toronto Zoo staff members, two zoo keepers and a director, are accompanying the animals on the trip along with an Active Environments transport team, the company handling the move, all in separate vehicles.
The convoy is heading down Markham Road and onto Highway 407, then onto Highway 401. Eventually, the elephants will cross the border into the United States at Sarnia. Toronto Police will escort them out of the city while the Ontario Provincial Police will accompany them to Kitchener, Ms. Tracey said.
“It’s a very emotional time, of course, but we are just first and foremost concerned about the safety of the elephants and everyone that is travelling with them on this journey,” she said. The trip is expected to take 50 to 60 hours, including stops.
Iringa and Toka have been at the zoo for more than 40 years while Thika was born there.