Goodbye Toronto Zoo elephants. We’re sorry.

The city could have done better, writes Barbara Amiel


Amy Dempsey / Getty Images

Last Monday, I went to see Toronto Zoo’s three aging African elephants who are about to leave for a new home in California—if they survive the 60-hour journey. In the late afternoon sun, the elephants were outdoors walking slowly around their barren enclosure, lifting each foot gently as if trying out new shoes. Thika, 33, the youngest, was captive-born at the Toronto Zoo. Hard to imagine 33 years of life in so small and empty a space, awakening each day to so repetitive a journey. Occasionally they looked at the spectators, eyelashes blinking in the sun. They engaged with me for just one moment and then turned away.

After the deaths of four elephants at the zoo in a space of four years, city council voted in 2011 to close down the elephant exhibit. They might have voted to allocate more funds for the zoo for better enclosures, but even in so wealthy a city as Toronto, with $20-million-plus condos and Lamborghinis all over the place, money and private donors couldn’t be found. The zoo’s 2014 budget has zero increases for operational costs plus cuts in maintenance. Wrangling over the elephants has gone on for years and now it all ends with Iringa, 44, Toka, 43, and “baby” Thika being trained to enter crates in which they will be tethered for a road trip that may kill them. Flying would have been better and there is still a chance that the Department of National Defence will relent and allow a plane to be used (not at taxpayers’ expense—The Price is Right celeb Bob Barker, an elephant saviour, has offered to contribute up to almost a million dollars for the journey) but there are only days left.

Zoos exist for a variety of reasons: conservation and research—although captive behaviour is unlikely to mirror life in the wild. Sometimes they serve political purposes: China’s giant pandas now on loan at the Toronto Zoo are a useful stage in our trade negotiations. The essential purpose of a zoo though is to allow us to see animals we would never encounter: a live Sumatran tiger of fantastic beauty or a rhino mud bathing. Zoos don’t exist for animals but for people—except possibly when people have encroached on habitat for human survival at the expense of driving a species to extinction. It’s a separate issue that a rapacious Asian demand for ivory is creating such terrible killing fields that elephants face extinction by poaching.

Creating a zoo should oblige us to make it as comfortable as we can. It is one thing to have a fish pond and another to keep fish on dry land because you can’t provide water. Africa can’t be recreated. Even in the wild, animals have to stake manageable boundaries and they cross into another pack’s territory at peril. But treatment of our elephants has been severely lacking—probably not the fault of animal keepers but of municipal keepers. One doesn’t have to be a sentimentalist to recognize an anthropomorphic response in the plodding walk of those broken-spirited mammals, their huge feet damaged by the concrete floors of winter quarters. In 1998, Tequila, one of Toronto’s former elephants, caught her leg in a “toy” in the enclosure—a tire swinging on a chain. The aid of her fellow elephants prevented a tragedy. Now a tire sits limply on the enclosure’s ground.

A zoo should not be a punishment camp. Looking at the Toronto Zoo’s naked mole-rats of east Africa, blind and hairless, banging their heads against the plastic walls of their containers trying to do what they instinctively do—burrow—is a mockery of nature in spite of the clever container design. The macaque monkey squatting alone on a beam in a sterile cage with a chipmunk and three sparrows scrambling across the floor below is no way to evoke its homeland. If you can’t effectively recreate an animal’s environment, then don’t have the animal. Take a look at the baby Indian rhino video on the Bronx Zoo page. Google Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo or the San Diego Safari Park. These are zoos that have embraced the concept of “landscape immersion,” giving inhabitants and spectators a real sense of the species’ own landscape (and a money-raising tourist attraction to boot). In a sense, a zoo is a socialist arrangement for animals: meals every day but no freedom. The jungle is capitalism but more dangerous. Landscape immersion is the best we can do in between these two states.

Elephants are one of only two or three species believed to have mirror recognition (they can identify themselves in mirrors, thus having a concept of self) and the close relationship between one another and their mahouts (keepers) is legendary. Years ago, spectators at the Budapest Zoo used to give elephants a coin, which the elephants would deliver in their trunks to the keeper who, in exchange, would give them a bun. Sometimes spectators jokily gave elephants false money and the keeper would not give out a bun. The frustrated elephants did not turn their wrath on the keeper—but scooped up sand and water to blow in the face of the deceiver. And if that same person returned years later, it’s true, they didn’t forget.

Shortly after Oct. 4, World Animal Day, Toronto Zoo’s last elephants will be gone. I don’t expect Iringa, Toka and Thika will forget their years in Toronto. I can’t speak knowledgeably about the last controversy: the worry of tuberculosis at the California sanctuary chosen by some councillors versus the American Zoological Accredited destination in Florida the zoo recommended. I only hope they survive the travel and, after all the pleasure they have given us, enjoy open fields of grasses and much sun, hanging out happily with fellow elephants. No more years of waiting patiently while municipal grandees huff and puff and blow their enclosure down. No more cement and cold and wasteland. California here we come. Toronto, we could have done better.

Have a comment to share? barbara.amiel@macleans.rogers.com

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Goodbye Toronto Zoo elephants. We’re sorry.

  1. The city could not have done better, just because the weather is inappropriate for elephants. I am sorry the misinformation the fearmongerers purposely have waged was brought into this article. This is Not a TB riddled sanctuary as they have seemed to convince is the case, and there is no worry of Toronto’s elephants contracting it. The African elephants at PAWS are in no proximity to the Asians where one is being treated for exposure to TB so that it does not go further. This has been a purposeful and vicious disservice to PAWS by AZA minions because sanctuaries do a much better job with elephants getting better, than the barren small places at AZA zoos, to which this article has attested.

    • Well, they will probably die in the truck so we won’t need to worry about TB. Why is no one paying any attention to all advice from the animal welfare scientists who have expressed an urgent need to not send the elephants to PAWS!! Hello, people, PAWS wouldn’t release their medical records and the Toronto Zoo vet went to PAWS and found TB in elephants. Do you realize how big the spray range of mucus coming from an elephant’s trunk in a full on elephant size sneeze!?! That’s some huge contagiousness. And look into how hard TB is to treat in humans. We are talking gallons of expensive antibiotics that are not very effective at killing TB to treat an elephant. Lets shove them into the box with no food or water and send them on a truck to a disease infected joint. What a huge disservice to our beloved elephants. It makes me sick to my stomach. We need to stop this insanity now!

      • Surprise Judy they had food and water and they did not die in the truck!!! You can STOP throwing up now!

  2. While I agree with your comments about zoos and animals being given an enclosure that recreates their habitat as faithfully as possible, your comments about PAWS are totally unfounded and are a disservice to the immense hard work they have put into securing better lives for these three elephants. PAWS hasn’t lost a single elephant in transit before. They know what they’re doing. How is the journey any different to the hundreds of similar journeys undertaken when zoos ship elephants to other zoos for breeding loans? I can give multiple examples of US zoos sending elephants on two-three day journeys to another zoo. The most recent was Spike who was sent on a two day truck journey to Busch Gardens on the 20th. I didn’t see you complaining about that.

    • Sure they know what they’re doing. That’s why they had vets from an AZA accredited zoo accompany them. Right?

  3. I wish people were concerned about TB in elephants traveling in the circus, where it is a legitimate issue. There’s nothing to be worried about at the PAWS sanctuary.

    • I have protested the Shrine Circus in the GTA for many years and nobody is concerned. They aren’t concerned about TB or the fact that Marie and Shelly are forced to spend 10 months a year being transported all over North America. I can assure you that I have NEVER once seen a zoo employee out there at our demos speaking up for those poor elephants – it just isn’t in their best interest.

    • People are, that is why circuses are becoming a thing of the past. Don’t take your kids to them and teach them how they are not good for animals. This is where the TB comes from in elephants to begin with and most of the elephants at PAWS are retired circus animals which is why they have TB which they originally acquired from humans working with them in the circus.

  4. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I’m sorry for the four elephants who lived miserably and died far too early because of human apathy and greed. I’m sorry that the girls health has been allowed to decline amongst all this controversy caused by the staff – caring only for themselves and their resumes. I’m sorry for the other animals who are still condemned to live out what sorry lives they can possibly have at our pathetic zoo. I’m sorry for Brytne the tiger killed by a forced relationship to produce more money-making cubs. I’m sorry for all those animals who are destined to meet the same fate as Brytne and many others. I’m sorry for the absolutely shameful treatment Bob Barker, and the people at PAWS, have received from the zoo staff and many Torontonians when they were the only ones coming forward to do what was right for our elephants.
    The girls deserve to live out the rest of their lives away from us, Toronto, and the zoo. My heart will always be with them.

    • Thank you Vanessa for your kind remarks about PAWS. It has been so hard, for the past couple of years, to sit back and listen to the nasty, untrue and downright hateful comments made by those people opposing the move of Toronto’s elephants to the PAWS sanctuary here in California. PAWS is such an amazing place for animals to live out their lives, and for anyone to believe otherwise…they are simply ignorant and uninformed. Thika, Iringa and Toka will be cared for by some of the most amazing people I know. These folks will not receive “more money” for caring for these girls, just more joy at watching elephants who are unlucky enough to be captives, live as wonderful a life as possible in their spacious and cozy “retirement home”. The animals who have been lucky enough to find sanctuary at one of our facilities are pampered, respected and loved in every way possible. I know that as soon as possible, PAWS will be sharing videos of the “new girls” living out their lives at ARK2000 in peace and with dignity. We too, love them already.

      • It is far too long overdue, Lorrie. I’m so glad that PAWS have remained supportive of our girls and dedicated to seeing them live out their lives with you. Even though our hearts would have broken – nobody could have blamed PAWS if they gave up after the treatment that they have received from some people. There are many of us in Toronto who have stood behind you and fought this entire time to see this outcome. I am forever thankful that PAWS hung in there for our girls.

  5. In the Tete d’Or park in Lyon (beautiful by the way), they had a few animals. Among them were two elephants. They were on a slab of cement surrounded by a deep moat. They just stood in one spot stepping on one foot after the other. It was so very, very sad.

  6. Animals are not ours to keep, they are not ours to entertain ourselves with. They are not ours to gawk at in a zoo. When we go home at night to our warm beds, they are still at the zoo. That is NOT a life, no matter how “luxurious” the enclosure. Abolish all zoos. If you want to look at a zebra, google a photo of it in its natural habitat. Having it at your disposal in a zoo is NOT a right.

    • Ok, so send them to a sanctuary enclosure? To get TB, then we won’t have to care for them at all cause they will be dead.

      Why don’t we just euthanize them, seriously?
      Stupid Humans
      Bob should have stuck with things he knows… Spay and Neuter yer cat and dogs

      • what is your conclusion here Judy?

  7. Certainly true. So much ego, politics and bluster involved in keeping these animals suffering for YEARS. We Canadians should be ashamed for allowing this. What is better to be alive – but mentally and physically suffering in an barren too small enclosure or to risk a chance at some semblance of freedom? I know which I would choose for myself.

  8. :(

  9. Sorry? You should be sorry, bunch of whiney little kids complaining about how it affect you and your political motivations, not what is truly best for the elephants. Anyone with two functional brain cells, with a hint of common sense can see that what PAWS has to offer is more than the zoo can provide. I’ve volunteered at PAWS, visited Toronto during a spring and met with their keepers, all top notch people. But the year-round climate is better at PAWS, and so is the environment. The staff at PAWS are also top notch. Enough of the politics… we get it, you’re upset that they are leaving, as I would be but they are off to greener pastures.

    • Well said Mike. I am so sick and tired of trying to camouflage human errors based on greed, selfishness, ignorance and apathy. Most of us, homo sapiens is just a plague, trying to act all polite and be politically correct with sweet words. The reality is, however, we are just ruining this planet and hurting all the other species.

  10. Yes, we could have done better. We could have sent them two years ago when the decision was first made instead of stalling and lying and slandering other organizations. Instead of letting their feet and spirits weaken further. Sadly, there are people at the Zoo and on council who would rather these elephants died than see them leave the Zoo. One councillor even wrote to the Defence Minister to urge him not to permit the use of the Canadian Forces aircraft. If they don’t make it through the drive, will she suffer any consequences? Doubtful.

    • Thanks, Radley, for remembering that Toronto City Councilor Gloria Lindsay Luby urged the Canadian Ministry of Defense not to permit an RCAF aircraft to fly the elephants to PAWS. It’s been foolish, duplicitous people like her and others who clearly had their own agendas and don’t give a fig about the elephants’ health or lives. I hope Torontonians remember Councilor Luby’s name when election time rolls around, and send HER packing.

  11. Can’t imagine that pr1ck Harper allowing military planes to be used for mere animals. I hope his kids remember this.

    • Why does it have to be a military plane? The C-17’s are probably the most highly used air frames in the CF. If they can’t provide a plane then they can’t.

      If flying the is the best method why not let Bob contract one of the many civilian air cargo companies to get the job done?

      • I agree greyman. If Barker has the money to pay for an aircraft to carry these animals then it would be easy enough for him to charter one from the States to fly the animals to the States. People are so quick to judge and assume they know what is going on behind the scenes. We should be grateful that these majestic creatures are finally being moved to a location that can better care for them and stop looking for a way to turn this into a political ‘he said, she said’ .

  12. How could they be so stupid as to keep elephants (or any animals) on concrete? Horses can’t be kept on concrete or they become “shoulder shot”, and suffer from arthritis – and they’re only a fraction of the weight of an elephant!

  13. spoken like a true pachyderm. Sorry indeed. Hopefully we will become extinct before they do. After all they are much older than we are in the scheme of evolution. But I am not placing a wager on it. Still we have the Duke of Cambridge on our side

  14. They do not look happy and I have been up close and this is a shame.

  15. All of you also fail to see that the wild is a terrible place for any animal in this incredibly imperfect world. Zoo’s need to do better, absolutely. But they are still a better option then being poached, hunted or culled. Zoo’s should ensure a comfortable life for all creatures they choose to house and do a much better job to promote education and conservation. They are not the enemy of animals, those killing them and destroying their habitat are. Protest that and fight those who commit crimes against animals in the wild.

  16. Hi Elephant lovers, have you read the article ELEPHANTS ADVISE Miss-SUZETTE.com at the Toronto Zoo, under her column: Humour for YOUR Health? Go to website: Miss-SUZETTE.com and Click on the ELEPHANT PHOTO. Enjoy.

  17. “, money and private donors couldn’t be found.”
    How much money was offered by Babs and connie?

  18. The decision whether to stay or place the elephants elsewhere should have been made by animal experts not a city council.
    The Sacramento temps dip to 6C during winter. I am no expert on zoo animals, logic tells me that Florida would have been a better place for our elephants.
    I visit the Toronto Zoo on Oct 12 and the one elephant on display walked over to the crate rocked back and forth and walked away. The rocking concerns me. The animal was nervous and a crate is not large enough to be rocking. Does that make sense?
    Wish they’d be transported by plane, would have been kinder to die quickly rather than to linger in a cramped crate for 5 days.

    But it’s not up to me, I’m just a ordinary citizen who changed her mind about Zoos.

  19. About 4 years ago I visit African Lion Safary near Cambridge Ontario. I saw a number of adult elephants and one baby elephant. How are the lion safary elephants homed over winter? Why no concern for them and all the fuss about TO Zoo elephants.?

  20. Back to the elephants, of which Amiel is very fond; she also states: “The magnificent and highly intelligent elephant has always been treated abominably. Today helicopter gunships shoot them down in Africa and hack off heads for ivory tusks, leaving baby elephants orphaned.” Maclean’s Magazine (September 13, 2013). Why is her first statement entirely nonsensical, and her second, in that context, misleading at best? This is because the demand for ivory has nothing whatsoever to do with poaching. There is a “rapacious” demand for pork, too, on the part of “Asians,” and everyone else for that matter, and yet the pig does not face “extinction by poaching” or from any other source. The same is true for steaks and cows, wings and chickens, etc. There is also “a rapacious Asian demand for” things like cement for building, wood for chopsticks, steel for ships, etc., etc. And, yet, miraculously, there is no shortage, let alone total disappearance of, any of these things.

    No, if we want to ferret out the source of the plight of the elephant, we must look elsewhere. Where oh where? I will give Amiel one hint: this difficulty stems from an institution that has played havoc with more, far more, than merely the elephant. Yes, that is it: the government. And how, pray tell, has statism caused grief in this particular case? It is simple. By not allowing private ownership in these creatures (and the same applies to the tiger, the rhino, the whale, and every other species in danger of extinction) the “public sector” has unleashed the tragedy of the commons on mankind, and with it the endangerment of all species that are not allowed to be owned privately.

    What you may well ask is the tragedy of the commons? When a resource such as an endangered species is unowned, in the vernacular owned “in common” by all of mankind, namely by no one, incentives to preserve it are greatly attenuated. If hunter A leaves an elephant alone today that he might have harvested, someone else, B, comes along and grabs it up. So A kills it right away, with no thought for the morrow. He will even slaughter a pregnant elephant, the hope for the future of this species. If these creatures were privately owned, they would of course still be hunted, in much the same way as other barnyard animals are culled, but there would be a stiff price attached to any such occurrence. Old male elephants would be the cheapest, of course. And if a hunter for some reason wanted to shoot a pregnant elephant, this too could probably be arranged; but it would costs a (human) arm and a leg. These funds of course would be used to preserve the basis of the earnings of the elephant owner.

    Perhaps the most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the contrasting fates of the cow and the buffalo. The former was always privately owned, and never came within a million miles of extinction. The latter for many years was in the commons, so people had little incentive to refrain from hunting it today. They would not have it tomorrow if they did not. In contrast, the cost of butchering a cow today is precisely that bovine tomorrow, so ranchers act economically with regard to that breed. It is movies such as Dances with Wolves that misconstrue this, and blame the near extinction of the buffalo on the white man.

    Do I need to amend this claim that “rapacious” demand is irrelevant to poaching? Could not a critic object to the analysis offered above on the ground that no one would poach anything that was not valuable? That is, if ivory lost its value, no one would poach it? No. Of course, no one would steal something that had no value at all. But, if a thing had no value at all, it would not be considered an economic good. So, yes, no one steals air, or worthless rocks, because they are not economic goods. But, when there are prohibitions placed on any economic goods, in effect a price control of zero on them, then there will be incentives unleashed to reward just that kind of behavior. For example, no one, nowadays, at least in the U.S., steals carrots (I ignore minor pilfering or shoplifting in making this statement). But suppose that government in its infinite wisdom declared a price ceiling of zero on carrots (they could only be given away, not sold), or, worse, banned them outright. Then, the black market price of these vegetables would rise above present carrot prices, and there would be far greater incentives to steal them than at present.

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