Skip to main content

Thika, one of the Toronto Zoo's three elephants that will be transported.Pat Hewitt/The Canadian Press

The struggle over the future of the city's trio of aging elephants has reached "an impasse," says the head of the Toronto Zoo, as accusations escalate on all sides and new questions are raised about the health of animals at the California sanctuary where they are destined to retire.

The charges by Toronto Zoo chief executive John Tracogna follow allegations that zoo staff have been willfully standing in the way of the move. At the heart of the fight is speculation about tuberculosis testing of elephants at the sanctuary and charges that zoo officials are refusing to review documents made available to them.

Mr. Tracogna issued a statement late Monday saying plans to move the animals were stalled because of a failure of the Performing Animal Welfare Society facility to provide medical records for its elephants.

"Obviously, we are disappointed that the health information that we require is not being made available," Mr. Tracogna said. "We remain steadfast in our repeated requests for the medical records. It is entirely irresponsible to move members of our family to another home without proof of operations and medical history."

Zoo staff felt compelled to issue the statement "to respond to spurious allegations made by ill-intentioned sources," the release said.

Pat Derby, executive director and co-founder of PAWS, operator of the California facility, said the Toronto Zoo has been provided with all medical information.

"We have sent them the medical records of every elephant alive," she said. "You may quote me. They lie. They lie – L-I-E."

The future of Toronto's three elephants – Iringa, Toka and Thika – has been fraught with finger-pointing from all sides. No one disputes that the three aging females would be better off in a warmer climate, but where to send them is the subject of heated debate. Last fall, city councillors took the unusual step of becoming directly involved in that decision, ordering staff to send the trio to the sanctuary and overriding a previous decision of the zoo board.

The plight of the three elephants even captured the attention of animal welfare advocate and former game show host Bob Barker, who has offered to pay the cost of moving the animals to California.

City council's direct involvement in the elephants' move also has been controversial, prompting one of the sector's major governing bodies to strip the Toronto Zoo of its accreditations last month. Staff and the board recommended sending the elephants to a facility that has accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which the PAWS facility does not have.

Toronto councillor Michelle Berardinetti, a leading advocate for the move, accuses zoo staff of deliberately flouting council's direction and refusing to review documents provided to them by PAWS.

"It's complete insubordination," Ms. Berardinetti said. She is planning to present the documents in question – including PAWS medical records – personally to zoo officials at a meeting Wednesday. If all else fails she will take the issue to council next week.

Julie Woodyer, with Zoocheck, is PAWS' representative in Canada. She said she has tried repeatedly to have the CEO or his representative inspect the medical records, as outlined in the legal agreement between the city and the sanctuary, even delivering a message to him at a zoo board meeting when he refused to answer e-mails.

"I have been begging him for weeks to please come and look at them," she said.

Ms. Derby, a former animal trainer, describes the climate as "toxic," saying she has never encountered such an acrimonious situation in the many years she has taken animals into her care. That includes facing gunfire in one incident, she said. "It was simple shooting and it was over," she said. "This is continual sniping."

The latest accusations involve questions about the results of tuberculosis tests on three elephants in the care of PAWS. In a blog post on the sanctuary's website, Ms. Derby says every elephant at her facility tested consistently negative for TB in cultures obtained in a process known as "truck wash." All the African elephants that will be housed with the Toronto females also have been found "non-reactive" to TB in blood tests, it says.

Blood tests done on three other elephants that have come back "reactive," but Ms. Derby stated in an interview that such blood results are not considered active TB.

In a report on TB in elephants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service recommends more frequent testing of animals with positive blood tests and negative TB culture results, but notes many factors influence the development of a disease after exposure.

Ms. Derby said foot problems in one of the Toronto elephants are a greater health concern.

In the statement, Mr. Tracogna does not discuss any specific health concerns and describes the PAWS facility as having "many redeeming qualities."

"We are fully prepared to move the elephants under conditions that ensure the health of the elephants involved," he states.

Zoo board chair Joe Torzsok said he is still hopeful "cooler heads will prevail."

"There have been a lot of accusations and a lot of noise," he said.

Interact with The Globe