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Three aging African elephants, another Canadian winter on the horizon and a zoo that could no longer afford to keep them.
Three facts that set the stage for a furious fight over fate of Toronto’s last three zoo elephants.
Today, the city’s last elephant residents Thika, Toka and Iringa are living the snowbird’s dream, soaking up the sun south of the border.
But their journey to the PAWS sanctuary in San Andreas, California took place after a bitter, two- year fight that continued even as the elephants were poised to leave for their new home.
And it made Toronto the latest battleground over whether zoos should even keep animals like elephants in an environment so far removed from their natural one.
CHARISMATIC MEGA FAUNA
In the zoo business, elephants are known as “charismatic mega fauna;” tall as a room in your house and two or three times the weight of a car. Plodding yet graceful, these beasts are good natured but possess lethal power. All of which make them a huge draw. It’s why they say that if you don’t have an elephant, you can’t call yourself a zoo.
And Toronto’s three remaining African elephants were certainly beloved by city’s zoo-going public and their dollars.
Toka, 43, and Iringa, 44 arrived at the zoo in 1974 -- the year it opened -- as youngsters spared from an elephant cull in Mozambique. Thika, 33, was born at the zoo in 1980. It was the only home she’d ever known.
But two years ago -- the Girls as they are affectionately known -- were faced with a reluctant but inevitable eviction when the Toronto Zoo was forced to admit it could no longer afford millions of dollars it would take to maintain them them in the long run. Combined with increasing pressure from animal welfare activists -- including retired game show host Bob Barker -- the search was on to find the right home for the trio.
THE PERFECT RETIREMENT HOME?
In May 2011, the Toronto Zoo board voted to close its elephant enclosure and drew up a list of criteria for a potential new home for its elephants.
It had to have other elephants already, plus the room to accommodate more. It had to be willing to accept elephants past breeding age, like the three from Toronto, and it couldn’t use metal bull hooks for discipline.
Based on these requirements, and there was only once place that fit -- the Performing Animal Welfare Society or PAWS, located near San Andreas, California.
PAWS is an internationally renowned sanctuary for retired zoo and circus animals. According to Toronto City Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who led the fight to have Toronto’s elephants moved there, it is the perfect place for Thika, Toka and Iringa: “It’s state of the art, the best facility you can send them to,” she tells the fifth estate. “It has a heated barn... they have a choice whether to go into the barn or whether they want to go to those 80 acres.”
Those 80 acres of hills and foliage are reserved just for the sanctuary’s African elephants, giving them far more room to roam than their concrete enclosure of less than one acre in Toronto.
PAWS looked like the obvious solution to so many. But the Toronto Zoo was unconvinced and seemed unwilling to let the elephants go.
It came down to a fundamental difference in philosophy. Zoos and the people who run them say they give the public the chance to see exotic animals such as elephants up close and build an appreciation for them. They also want the animals to reproduce so they can stay in business.
But sanctuaries exist to give animals a place to live out their lives; their ultimate goal is to eliminate all elephants in captivity. Ed Stewart, President of PAWS and one of its founders insists his sanctuary is one of the few places elephants in captivity can get a glimpse of normal elephant life. “they almost can’t go anywhere without going up or down a hill,” he tells the fifth estate.
“They can rub on trees, they can eat branches, they can pick at grass at certain times of the year the grass is really tall and green and they eat a lot of grass. They have just little snippets of normal life.”
THE LONG STRANGE TRIP BEGINS
But the journey to that life would take two years to make a reality. Julie Woodyer, of Zoocheck Canada was a driving force behind the relocation. She says the safety of the elephants was always the highest priority.
“There’s risks associated with everything we do,” Woodyer says. “There’s risks associated with moving them. There’s certainly risks associated with leaving them in our climate. You know we’re well aware of those risks and we’ve planned for the worst and we’re working towards the best.”
When Woodyer went looking for someone to take on the task of moving the elephants only one name came up: Margaret Whittaker...the “elephant mover”.
Whittaker is an animal behaviour consultant. She’s moved 17 elephants over the years and knows how risky it can be and how meticulous the planning must be.
For close to 60 hours straight, the three elephants would be locked into their crates. Whittaker and her team of eight would constantly analyze the animals via cameras installed in each crate, watching out a potential worst-case scenario.
“We don’t want them to lie down and get in a position that they can’t right themselves. That would be very dangerous,” Whittaker tells the fifth estate. “So different to other animals that we transport, elephants are purposefully given a limited amount of space.”
On the morning of October 17, 2013 Thika, Toka and Iringa were loaded into their crates, something they had been practicing for months -- and waited to leave. But as evening and night approached, they were still waiting to begin the journey as the Toronto Zoo sorted out its paperwork and which of its keepers would accompany the elephants. There were even calls for a last minute government inspection.
Finally, just after 10:30 p.m., after a 9-hour delay, the convoy carrying Toronto’s last three elephants pulled out of the zoo and headed west.
In the wee hours of October 18, the elephant caravan of 5 vehicles -- including 2 flatbed trucks carrying the elephants and the vast supplies needed for the journey -- approached the US border at Port Huron, Michigan. A camera crew from the fifth estate was also part of the convoy, documenting every part of the journey.
In addition to the live cargo, the team had to carry supplies to account for every scenario. Massive amounts of food, water and $9000 worth of medical supplies had to clear the border as well.
Tensions were high; the U.S. government had been shut down for weeks and only re-opened hours before. No one knew what the impact on cross-border traffic would be once it ended, especially with unusual cargo such as this.
But The Girls were lucky. With a few surprised smiles and waves goodbye from US border agents, the elephants and their entourage were quickly waved on their way.
ON THE ROAD
With the border behind them and 4000 kilometres to California ahead of them, the Thika, Toka and Iringa were on their way. Margaret Whittaker and her crew kept a close eye on them with the help of cameras installed in each of the crates. Toka and Iringa’s crates were strapped to one truck, the slightly larger Thika’s strapped to the other.
The convoy stopped every two to three hours, depending on the elephants’ level of fatigue. Two veterinarians from the Oakland Zoo performed careful checks on them at every stop while Whittaker and other members of the team and 3 keepers from Toronto fed, watered the elephants and made sure the crates were cleaned.
But elephants can be picky. At one point, Whittaker and the team worried that Thika wasn’t hydrating enough. “She didn’t want to drink enough, we tried Gatorade and Tang,” she says.
At their final destination, PAWS executive director Ed Stewart was in constant communication with the convoy. “I wanted good news and I wanted bad news, you know? I wanted to know if something was going wrong or right,” he tells the fifth estate.
Even from such a long range, Stewart was concerned about Thika’s subdued behaviour “Eating is not that important. I mean, they could’ve gone without eating for the entire trip and it wouldn’t have been too concerning. Dehydration is something you always have to watch for,” he explains.
In the end, Gatorade seemed to do the trick.
At the end of a very long first day, the convoy reached Iowa, and took a break at the world’s biggest truck stop.
One important job at each stop was cleaning out the 120 kilograms of dung and other waste produced daily by the elephants. Most of the team was involved in this, including Pat Lampi.
Lampi volunteered his time for this trip, taking a break from his regular job as Executive Director of the Alaska Zoo. He brought with him a unique perspective -- as a zoo manager who, like many at the Toronto Zoo, initially opposed the move south for his zoo’s own elephant, Maggie.
THE TRAIL BLAZED BY MAGGIE
In 2007, Maggie was Alaska’s lone elephant, living in the zoo’s concrete elephant house with a small outdoor enclosure. Lampi and the zoo board balked at sending her to another facility, despite mounting mounting research showing how deeply elephants depend on the company of others like them.
According to internationally-known zoo director and architect David Hancocks, it is hard for people to comprehend just how sociable elephants are. “The female, matriarchal society that they have, the females born into that group will never be separated from its mother, its sister, its aunts, its grandmothers, its grandparents,” he tells the fifth estate. “They’re always together, they’re always in touch. The only way they lose each other is through death.”
And that is what happened to Maggie, with the death of her zoo companion, Annabelle, a decade earlier. After her health began to fail, the zoo invested in some expensive refurbishments and equipment -- including a giant treadmill that Maggie refused to use.
In the end, retired game show host Bob Barker offered to fund Maggie’s journey to a place where she could be with other elephants. Lampi remained opposed -- until he arrived at PAWS.
“It just looked like a peaceful setting, as close as you could get on this continent for elephants,” he says.
Maggie has thrived with the other African elephants at PAWS; her health improved and her spirit restored. And Lampi stands by his change of heart, happy to share his experience with those moving Thika, Toka and Iringa to their new home.
LEAVING ONE BEHIND
After three gruelling but largely uneventful days on the road, passing through the packed super-highways of Michigan, the open cornfields of Iowa, the cold plains of Nebraska, then Utah, Wyoming and through Nevada, the convoy finally reached California.
But northern California threw the team a curve ball. As they drove through the steep mountains, the payload of an elephant weighing thousands of kilograms put too much pressure on the brakes of Thika’s truck, forcing the crew to make an emergency stop in the small town of Pine Grove.
With the brakes smoking, the crew scrambled to find water to cool them down. With the help of locals with water hoses, the brakes were cooled off, and Thika fed with branches from nearby trees. The convoy continued on, but without Thika. A replacement truck was called. Within an hour, Thika was on her way to PAWS.
A NEW HOME AT LAST
At dusk on October 20, the elephants’ 4100 kilometre journey came to an end, as the truck carrying Toka and Iringa arrived at the PAWS sanctuary.
But for PAWS president and co-founder Ed Stewart, the man now entrusted with their care, there was one last complicated job left -- unloading the elephants. It’s a dangerous task -- hoisting a 5-ton steel crate containing a 4-ton elephant off the truck and onto a loading platform.
For the elephants, being suspended in the air may be the worst part of the whole experience.
For the zookeepers from Toronto, it was their final task with the elephants they’ve known for years and they were visibly upset.
Pat Lampi head of the Alaska Zoo, who faced a similar situation years before when leaving his elephant at PAWS says he understood what they were going through and tried to console a distraught keeper.
“I could certainly empathize with some of the emotions going on in Toronto and some of those people. I did try to talk to one of them a little bit and ‘hey, I understand what you’re going through but it’s ok to feel that way but really look around and see where this animal is going and that should make everything right in your heart,” he tells the fifth estate.
Toka and Iringa left their crates and moved into the PAWS elephant barn with little difficulty. But Thika, who arrived after them took about an hour to emerge from hers, and several hours more to enter the barn.
Meanwhile inside, the Toronto elephants’ new companions were trumpeting their welcome. “I told our staff … that had never experienced a new elephant showing up with other elephants in the barn, it’s so loud it’s paralyzing, “ says Stewart.
THE GIRLS SETTLE IN
On their first day, Thika, Toka and Iringa explored their new surroundings a little at a time; tasting the grass, testing the dirt, trying out the mud hole, all looking very much at home.
Before too long,they will eventually join the other 3 African elephants at PAWS, making them a family of six.
Says Ed Stewart: “They’re elephants and we’re not elephants, and elephants need other elephants. I think, I think the Toronto elephants are gonna benefit from being with our elephants and our elephants are gonna love having the new elephants come here.”
Besides their new family, the Girls will have the chance -- Thika for the first time in her life -- to venture further, climb up and over hills, and disappear over the other side. And not come back until they want to.