Advocacy group names Hamilton's 'cruel' African Lion Safari as 'worst' zoo for elephants

An animal rights advocacy group has published its annual top 10 worst zoos for captive elephants, with African Lion Safari in Hamilton listed at number one. 

Animal welfare groups oppose the sale of elephants to a Texas zoo

The organization says keeping the elephants in an unsuitable cold climate, and training them to perform tricks and give rides, are among reasons why African Lion Safari earned the top spot. (Richard Vogel/The Associated Press)

An animal rights advocacy group says an Ontario safari theme park is the worst zoo in North America for elephants. 

In Defense of Animals has published its annual list of the top 10 worst zoos for elephants, with African Lion Safari in Hamilton taking the number one spot. 

"African Lion Safari is a cruel, dangerous, and profit-driven business supported by zoos," said Will Anderson, elephant campaign coordinator with the group, in a media release. "This zoo, and others doing business with it, operate like an elephant-trafficking cartel."

In Defense of Animals criticizes the park's process of sending elephants to zoos for breeding. African Lion Safari plans to sell two elephants to the second worst-ranked zoo on the list, located in Texas, for $2 million. 

Other reasons the 304-hectare (750 acres) park leads the list, the organization said, include having its location in an unsuitable cold climate, using bullhooks to train the elephants, and having them perform tricks and give rides to visitors. 

Largest Asian elephant herd in North America

CBC News attempted to contact the African Lion Safari about the ranking, but did not receive a response. Its website says that their goal is to continue a "successful breeding programme for the endangered Asian elephant to conserve these magnificent animals for future generations."

The park says it's "dedicated" to the conservation of wildlife species, and houses over 1,000 exotic birds and animals. 

African Lion Safari has the largest Asian elephant herd in any zoological facility in North America, according to its website. The latest numbers count 16 elephants at the park. Twenty-one elephants have been born at the zoo, which also says it has more second generation births than any other North American facility.

According to the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, there are over 20 elephants in captivity in Canada.

Sale of elephants to Texas

African Lion Safari plans to sell two female elephants to Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, which is second on the advocacy group's list of worst zoos for elephants. 

The Fort Worth zoo's permit application submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is for two females, 15-year-old Emily and eight-year-old Nellie. 

African Lion Safari will get $200,000 more if Emily produces a calf, as long as it lives for more than 60 days. 

PAWS president Ed Stewart called the price of the elephants being sold to a Texas zoo "obscene" and warned it could create a "perverse financial incentive." (CBC)

The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which runs a sanctuary park in California, says the $2-million price tag set a "perverse financial incentive" for other countries to disguise sales as conservation. 

"The only word to describe this deal is obscene," said Ed Stewart, society president, in the release. "By proposing to pay a record-setting two million dollars for two captive Asian elephants, the Fort Worth Zoo is putting an even higher price on the heads of elephants all over the world, captive and wild, Asian or African, and encouraging more trafficking in elephants."

PAWS's San Andreas sanctuary is home to the last three elephants from the Toronto Zoo

Texas elephant exhibit under renovations

The Fort Worth Zoo has seven elephants, according to the application, ranging from six to 46-years-old. Importing the pair from Canada will "expand the adult herd members actively participating in the breeding program."

The application said Emily and Nellie are "optimal candidates," and that the zoo is "actively working towards producing an elephant calf every two to three years." Importing the elephants would also expand captive and wild elephant research, the application said. 

CBC News also reached out to Fort Worth Zoo about the sale, but did not receive a response. 

If [the price] becomes the norm, it's only going to encourage wildlife trafficking- Janine Cavin, co-founder Global March for Elephants and Rhinos-Toronto

The zoo says it's been expanding the elephant yards to near-triple the former size. That section is projected to open in spring 2021. 

Though it laments that the elephants perform, Global March for Elephants and Rhinos in Toronto says they would be better off in Canada. 

Moving them to the smaller zoo despite the expansion, says the online petition, "shows a profound lack of understanding of the space that elephants require to maintain their health and well-being."

Co-founder and director Janine Cavin said if African Lion Safari is considering selling female elephants "they must be really hurting financially."

Ideally, a sanctuary would be the best place for them, she said, but that isn't likely to happen, especially in light of any money troubles during the pandemic. 

Such a high price, Cavin said, is a "shocker."

"If it becomes the norm, it's only going to encourage wildlife trafficking, and we're trying to stop all of that," she said. 

Plans to reopen May 2021

African Lion Safari is a member of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It has been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but its phone line says it is opening in May 2021. 

That accreditation, said In Defense of Animals, gives a "green light" for zoos in the United States — under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) — to buy the elephants. The AZA does not allow elephant rides, is phasing out bullhooks, and requires restricted contact, the release said. 

International advocacy group, World Animal Protection published a report two years ago saying that African Lion Safari was violating global guidelines by allowing humans to get up close to the animals. It also campaigned to the provincial government to end elephant rides and shows. 

Also in 2019, a trainer at the zoo suffered serious injuries after police say he was attacked by an elephant. An elephant had seriously injured a worker before in 1989, when 21-year-old Omer Norton was killed. 

In November 2020, Manitoba Senator Murray Sinclair, backed by primatologist Jane Goodall, introduced a bill that would ban new captivity of great apes and elephants, "except for justifiable purposes such as their best interests" including individual welfare, conservation and non-harmful scientific research. 

This legislation, called the Jane Goodall Act, would also ban imports of elephant ivory and hunting trophies into the country. 

But Anderson said that wouldn't go far enough. 

"The African Lion Safari elephants must be sent on one final trip — to an accredited sanctuary for life," he said.