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Elephants should leave Toronto Zoo, report advises

Elephants at the Toronto Zoo's enclosure in 2003.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In the flesh, the Toronto Zoo's elephants are grey, but a new report paints them white.

The paper, written by zoo staff for a board meeting next week, backs the controversial idea of shipping the zoo's three elderly elephants - Iringa, Toka and Thika - to another zoo over concerns about their cost and welfare.

But in a largely symbolic victory for those lobbying to keep the elephants, the report stops short of siding with animal-rights group Zoocheck and its famous spokesman, former Price Is Right host Bob Barker, who have advocated transferring the elephants to a California sanctuary run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS.

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"I'm satisfied that they would go to an accredited zoo rather than this sanctuary," said Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, a member of the zoo board who has fought to keep the animals in Toronto. "Bob Barker should stick to something else."

The report recommends the elephants go to a zoo with an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation, for which the California sanctuary does not qualify. Board members who support the bid to send the elephants to the sanctuary said they could overrule that stipulation when they consider the recommendations on May 12.

Ms. Lindsay Luby has sounded out her fellow members and suspects they will vote in favour of relocating. "I'm disappointed," she said. "What is a zoo without an elephant?"

It would cost the Scarborough attraction $16.5-million to build the new elephant barn and paddocks that are required to keep its current pachyderm program in line with the evolving standards of the AZA. The three female elephants cost more than $600,000 a year to keep, a figure expected to rise to upwards of $900,000 in the near future. Bringing in new elephants would cost a further $3-million.

Four of the zoo's elephants have died in the past five years. Zoocheck and Mr. Barker have attributed that to the climate, which they say is too cold for older elephants like Iringa, Toka and Thika - aged 42, 41 and 30, respectively.

"When you have four elephants that die in the last five years, all before reaching old age, you know something isn't working for this particular animal," said Linda Bronfman, one of the founders of Everyone loves Elephants, a group supporting relocation that has collected more than 100 signatures from prominent Canadians, including Margaret Atwood, Jeanne Beker, Michael Ondaatje and Isadore Sharp.

Most board members have warmed to their argument.

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"This will be a huge victory for those of us who have said the city of Toronto is too darn cold for animals that don't have any fur," said Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, a seven-year veteran of the board. "Those animals are past retirement age. They should retire to a beautiful sanctuary down in the sunny United States."

In their current state, the elephants add little to the zoo experience, according to Mr. De Baeremaeker.

"When you walk into the compound, you're separated from the elephants by a cement barrier and about 50 feet," he said. "They might be off by a tree standing still. Sometimes they poo and that's the most excitement the kids will get. It's not interactive or educational."

He's urging the zoo to adopt an elephant education program in lieu of actual elephants that would distribute papier mâché elephant dung to school groups. "The kids then open up the fake poo to see what an elephant eats," he said. "Every 10-year-old would be thrilled to do that."

While Mr. De Baeremaeker said the report is "a huge victory," he thought the authors erred in underplaying the ethical concerns related to holding elderly elephants in frigid captivity and suggesting that the program could be reinstated.

"This report is saying we don't have the money today, but tomorrow we might suddenly find $20-million to get some new elephants here?" he said. "It's bizarre. They'll never come back."

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With a report from Tamara Baluja

(Editor's note: an earlier version of this story included incorrect information about the organization Linda Bronfman founded. The group is called Everyone loves Elephants. This online version has been corrected.)

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