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Detail-driven meeting brings Toronto elephants one step closer to lift off

Toka, an African elephant, on May, 2012 at the Metro Toronto Zoo. Toka and two other elephants who are being retired from the zoo may be sent to to the PAWS sanctuary in California, with TV personality Bob Barker footing the bill for the move.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It's a plan that sounds straight out of a Hollywood movie and is financed by former game-show host Bob Barker – and it could be one step closer to fruition.

Officials with the Toronto Zoo and the Department of National Defence met Thursday to discuss an operation that could see a military plane transport three elephants to a California sanctuary.

"I don't see a problem with it," said Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker. "It's our own version of Operation Dumbo Drop."

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City council voted, in 2011, to send the three elephants – Toka, Thika, and Iringa – to the Performing Animals Welfare Society sanctuary.

Julie Woodyer, the Toronto representative for PAWS and campaign director for watchdog group Zoo Check, said two options are under consideration – flying the elephants to California, or driving them.

Ms. Woodyer, who was also at Thursday's meeting, said Royal Canadian Air Force staff asked detailed questions about the scope of the project, but did not make a decision.

A DND spokeswoman issued a statement that said Thursday's meeting was "intended to assess and better understand the issues involved."

She said the department and Canadian Armed Forces receive numerous requests each year for the use of military resources.

"A determination is made based on factors such as the impact on Canadian Armed Forces operations, the availability of personnel and equipment, and legal and financial issues, as well as the impact on competing commercial enterprises," she said.

The statement did not indicate when the department would make its decision.

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Ms. Woodyer said she's hopeful the elephants will be moved, one way or the other, by the end of June. She said the cost of flying the elephants would likely be between $250,000 and $500,000, while driving them would likely cost under $200,000.

The zoo also issued a statement Thursday, which said it "wants to ensure the safest and most comfortable transport plan for the elephants."

"While the final transportation plans are the full responsibility of the PAWS sanctuary and they are working with Active Environments, an animal management and animal training specialty company, the dedicated zookeepers continue to work with the animals to prepare them for the transport which includes training them to move in and out of crates," the statement read.

The zoo's statement said it wants to move the elephants this year and noted Mr. Barker, the former host of The Price is Right, "remains committed to providing the financial resources to cover the full costs of the transport."

Though council voted in favour of sending the elephants south, not all councillors spoke favourably of the military flight plan.

"I would think that our Air Force has better things to do with their planes," said Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby.

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Ms. Lindsay Luby also raised concerns about the fact some of the elephants at the sanctuary have tuberculosis.

Ms. Woodyer said the herd that was exposed to tuberculosis has been quarantined and the Toronto elephants would not be in danger.

Mr. De Baeremaeker, who is on the zoo board with Ms. Lindsay Luby, took issue with her complaint about military resources.

"I think it's a ridiculous concern. Our council voted 38-4 to retire our elephants, to send them down to a sanctuary in California. Why not put them on a plane? In fact, a plane is a good option for elephants because it's shorter [than driving]," he said.

He said Torontonians should be pleased the elephants are going to the best facility in North America.

"We should be cheering and clapping," he said. "Our elephants are going to be very happy."

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