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Toronto Zoo says new crates complicate elephants’ move

Zoo officials say the feel and sound of the crates make the elephants uncomfortable.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Zoo elephant trainers say they are "worried sick" that new crates have upset the training regime to prepare three elephants for their scheduled mid-October move to a California sanctuary.

The elephants, set to retire to the Performing Animals Welfare Society facility some time after Thanksgiving, spent more than a year training for travel in crates sent by the group last year, said Chris Dulong, supervisor for the zoo's Savanna section at a news conference Wednesday.

After PAWS sent new, specially designed crates a few weeks ago, the elephants have had trouble adjusting, he said. "They were in a really, really good spot. We have some catch-up to do now that we have some new crates."

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Mr. Dulong said the feel and sounds of the new crates make the elephants uncomfortable. In training, the elephants receive snacks as positive reinforcement when they step into the crates; staff bang the sides of the crates to familiarize them with the new sounds. Although two elephants could enter the old crates, only one can now stay inside her new crate for about 15 to 20 minutes, Mr. Dulong said.

But Julie Woodyer, PAWS spokeswoman and campaign director for watchdog group Zoo Check, said the new crates look the same, except with larger straps to hold the elephants and a climate-control system.

"It's really good to acclimatize elephants to a variety of circumstances," Ms. Woodyer said. "Teaching them just to walk in that crate is not really enough."

Ms. Woodyer said the older crates were sent to start the training process as the lengthy debate surrounding the elephants' transfer continued. When city council made the decision to send the elephants to PAWS, the group invested money in two custom crates for Iringa and Toka. Thika's crate did not change.

"In reality, to train elephants to get in a crate takes between one and six weeks. It doesn't take a year or two years," she said.

The three crates cost about $100,000 altogether, Ms. Woodyer said, bringing the total estimate for the move up to $350,000. Former game-show host Bob Barker is still committed to paying for the move, she said.

Although the zoo employees' union raised concerns about the elephants standing for so long, Ms. Woodyer said they cannot be transported lying down because their organs can be crushed under their own weight. Instead, she said the animals will rest during regular stops for feeding, cleaning and veterinarian checks during the 50- to 60-hour trip.

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Union president Christine McKenzie said workers are worried about tuberculosis at PAWS and the safety of land transport versus air, which was originally proposed.

"We never wanted them to go to PAWS in the first place, but … at least when they were going by air, we knew that they had a good shot at getting there safely," she said.

But Ms. Woodyer argued land travel is safest because it allows handlers to stop for emergencies. As for the tuberculosis, she said the infected elephants are quarantined away from the other animals.

Earlier this week, the Calgary Zoo also chose land transport for elephant Spike's journey to the Busch Gardens facility in Florida, the same place the Toronto Zoo union hoped its elephants would go.

"[Air transport] reduces the journey time, but potentially, the actual journey itself may well actually be more stressful," said Jake Veasey, zoologist with the Calgary Zoo. He said it took two months to acclimatize Spike to his crate.

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