The Toronto Zoo (Canada) has been keeping African elephants since its foundation in 1974. Of the seven young elephants that arrived in 1974, two are still alive: “Iringa”, 43 years, and “Toka”, 42 years. The herd is completed by 32-year old “Thika” who was born in Toronto. The breeding bull died in 1989 and four females including “Thika`s” mother between 2006 and 2009. After the four deaths in just 3 years the Toronto zoo was heavily criticized for its elephant program. While the outdoor enclosure in Toronto is rather large, the barn is much too small considering the amount of time the elephants have to spend indoors in the long winters.
In 2011 the Zoo, which is owned by the City of Toronto, decided to end the elephant program. Because the search for a new home took too long, local politicians became involved, and in October 2011 the City Council decided to send the three females to the Californian sanctuary “Ark 2000”, run by Pat Derby and Ed Stewart from the “Performing Animal Welfare Society” (PAWS) . At the sanctuary, the elephants can enjoy a mild climate and huge outdoor habitats that surpass all standards set by the American zoo association AZA. However, the controversy over the elephants only became more heated after the decision of the City Council. The elephant keepers and the zoo management, supported by the AZA, heavily criticized the decision. They tried to stop the transfer to the independent sanctuary in favor of an AZA-accredited facility through lobbying in the media and a hostile internet campaign, and delayed the move until today. The main argument of the zoo supporters are fears that at the PAWS sanctuary, the Toronto elephants would be in danger of becoming infected with tuberculosis since several Asian elephants originating from Ringling Circus and now living at PAWS are under suspicion of being infected with the disease. That these elephants are kept in separate facilities without any contact to the healthy, tuberculosis-free herd of African elephants is ignored by the Toronto zoo. Interestingly, AZA zoos are much more relaxed when elephants in AZA zoos are affected by the disease. In 2011, both the St. Louis zoo (female elephant “Donna”) and the Albuquerque Zoo (female elephant “Alice”) diagnosed active tuberculosis within their breeding herd of Asian elephants. Both elephants remained with the group without any quarantine measures, breeding continued and both elephants stayed on exhibit, suggesting that there is no danger of zoo visitors catching the bacterium through the air. Why should this be different at the PAWS sanctuary?Another argument from those against Sanctuaries is that the sanctuaries don`t breed and therefore don`t contribute to conservation. Regarding the Toronto elephants, this reveals the AZA supporters as hypocrites: The reason that the Toronto elephant herd is a non-breeding group today is due to utter failure of the zoo and the AZA. It was the Toronto Zoo that never replaced the breeding bull after his early death and therefore wasted the breeding potential of the elephant group.
The City Council of Toronto has now shown that it is immune to the prejudiced reasoning of the zoo industry. On November 27 , the City Council confirmed its original decision from October 2011 with overwhelming majority (32:8) and ordered the zoo to transfer the three elephants to PAWS by the end of the year. The zoo director has announced that the zoo will accept the decision.