Before the Toronto Zoo's last three elephants can finally retire down south, they'll have to take a rare journey involving cranes, police escorts and a Soviet-designed cargo plane large enough to accommodate a locomotive or a whale.
The Antonov An-124, which has delivered train engines and marine mammals in the past, will be the strategic airlift jet aircraft that will ship Iringa, Toka and Thika to their new home at the 80-acre PAWS sanctuary in California, according to a draft transportation plan obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Transporting a pachyderm 3,500 kilometres by air is a feat as large and intimidating as an elephant itself.
Consider a few of the challenges: The Antonov An-124's cargo bay is not pressurized, meaning the mammoth aircraft will have to fly at lower-than-usual altitudes to keep the animals and their caretakers safe. Veterinarians equipped with mild sedatives and tranquilizer guns will have to accompany the elephants on the 5 1/2-hour flight in case they become too agitated.
And straps suspended from the crates will have to be "positioned in the appropriate place so that in the event an elephant were to go down in the crate during transport, they can be safely lifted to their feet."
"The thing that's really unique about this is that the Toronto Zoo demanded they be flown," said Julie Woodyer, campaigns director for Zoocheck Canada, which is acting as the Canadian agent for the Performing Animals Welfare Society or PAWS.
The transportation plan, which was drawn up by PAWS, is still awaiting input and signoff from the Toronto Zoo's chief executive officer.
So is the elephant transfer itself.
The last obstacle could be cleared Wednesday when two veterinarians and a lawyer for the Toronto Zoo are scheduled to review the health records of the elephants at the PAWS sanctuary, including necropsy reports of some that have died at the facility.
Although Councillors Michelle Berardinetti and Glenn De Baeremaeker expressed certainty Tuesday that the zoo would sign off, renewed concerns about tuberculosis at the sanctuary could stymie the move.
"This is the last hurdle we have to get through to get our elephants to a safe place," said Mr. De Baeremaeker, a Scarborough councillor and member of the zoo board. "It should have happened a long time ago."
Assuming the Toronto Zoo gives the go-ahead, Ms. Woodyer said PAWS is looking at Aug. 3 for a possible departure because there is an Antonov An-124 in North America and available that day.
"There are only two companies that fly the An-124," she said – and only one willing to ship live animals.
The tentative cost for the flight is $622,000, a bill that animal welfare advocate and former game show host Bob Barker has agreed to foot.
Ms. Woodyer is confident the elephants can be transferred safely and comfortably by air.
Thika, Toka and Iringa have already begun training to walk in an out of three massive crates, two of which are owned by the experienced contractor who will oversee the transfer. A third was specially built for the tallest of the elephants.
Although the crates are designed so the animals can't escape or injure themselves, the elephants will be chained by at least two front legs and one back leg so they can't move around too much during the trip.
Once the elephants are calm and secure inside the crates, a crane will hoist all three onto two trailers.
"Each loaded crate will be initially lifted 6 inches off the ground to see how each elephant responds, since this can be an unusual feeling for the animals," according to the transportation plan.
A police escort has been requested to make sure traffic gridlock doesn't keep the elephants from their flight.
Once they arrive at Pearson International Airport, the two trucks will drive onto the An-124. One cab will unhook its trailer and leave; the other will stay on the flight to Sacramento and then on to ARK2000, the PAWS sanctuary in San Andreas.
If the retirement trip goes ahead as planned, it will be the denouement of a saga that began in October, when council voted to override the zoo board and send Iringa, Toka and Thika to PAWS.
The decision led to the zoo losing its accreditation with one of the sectors' major governing bodies.
Lawyers for the zoo and PAWS have been wrangling for months, stymying the transfer.
The zoo has asked for copies of health records from PAWS, but the organization has said the records can only be viewed, not copied, because of confidentiality agreements signed with other facilities that have donated animals to the sanctuary.
That review is expected to take place at Wednesday's meeting, which will also include Ms. Woodyer and a lawyer for PAWS.
The zoo declined an interview request, but said in a statement that it, "remains hopeful that the necessary due diligence process can be completed and that the requested records from PAWS are submitted to the Zoo's lawyer."