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Elephants at the Toronto Zoo's enclosure in 2003.

By getting rid of its endangered elephants, the Toronto Zoo could be endangering itself.

North America's two zoo accreditation bodies have issued stern letters to the Toronto Zoo, warning staff and board members that shipping three African elephants to California could imperil the Scarborough attraction's accreditation status.

In a three-page missive, Donald Moore, chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Accreditation Commission, chastised city council for its decision to send the elephants to an 80-acre facility run by the Performing Animals Welfare Society and threatened to yank Toronto's certification.

"The Accreditation Commission believes that the action taken by the Council may place the zoo's accreditation in jeopardy," he wrote in a letter addressed to the chair and vice-chair of the Toronto Zoo Board.

Without proper certification, the Toronto Zoo would be unable to maintain its animal collection, according to a staff report.

There is little argument that the elephants have to go somewhere; a staff report last spring stated that the pachyderms are too expensive for the zoo to care for properly. But views diverge on where their next destination should be, setting up a battle involving animal rights and political will.

While the zoo board decided in May that the best place for the elephants was another AZA-certified zoo, city council overturned that decision last month with a motion championed by rookie Councillor Michelle Berardinetti calling on the zoo to send them to PAWS, an unaccredited sanctuary long touted by animal-rights activists such as former Price Is Right host Bob Barker. The City of Toronto owns the zoo and can override the decisions of its board.

But the elephant decision rankled a few veteran zoo board members. "I was thoroughly disgusted," said Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby. "This motion usurped the board's decision-making process. If you're going to keep doing that, what's the point of a zoo board? It's sneaky, it's unprecedented and not worthy of council."

Ms. Berardinetti argued that her fellow councillors had to act then and there to stop the elephants from being sent to a cramped AZA-certified zoo in the United States.

A staff report released Friday revealed that their most likely destination was not a cramped zoo but the National Elephant Centre, a 225-acre, AZA-certified "elephant-care facility" in Florida that's set to break ground early next year.

Despite that revelation, Ms. Berardinetti was sticking to her guns Friday, contending that the Elephant Centre would likely still use bullhooks and tending methods that PAWS considers inhumane.

"The AZA is simply trying to bully Toronto and it's really too bad," she said. "The Toronto Zoo is a fantastic facility. It's well above the minimal standards set by the AZA. They don't use bullhooks. Why would we put these animals in the hands of a place that has any lower standards?"

She recently travelled to the PAWS facility and pointed out that at least two AZA zoos have transferred elephants there without any impact on their accreditation.

The zoo board will meet Nov. 24, and members on both sides of the issue expect a fight. Ms. Berardinetti and others will be pushing to have staff accede to the will of council and send the elephants to California as soon as they're ready in April. Members such as Ms. Lindsay Luby will attempt to delay the move and demand that staff conduct a thorough evaluation of PAWS before shipping any animals.

That would be in keeping with regulations quoted in the letters from the AZA and Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums. According to AZA regulations, zoo staff must ensure that any institution receiving one of its animals is capable of providing proper care. The Toronto Zoo's elephant keepers have openly opposed any attempt to transfer the elephants to PAWS until they can conduct a full assessment of the California sanctuary.

"Please change the decision that was made by council," states a letter to councillors signed by seven keepers. "Please allow Toronto Zoo staff to complete a fair comparison of all the facilities."