3 Toronto Zoo elephants trained for California flight

Ever seen an elephant fly? Three Toronto Zoo elephants will fly from the city to California on Aug. 2, in an undertaking that's expected to cost up to $1 million.

Iringa, Toka and Thika set to fly south as early as Aug. 2

The African elephant, Toka, age 41, is moving from the Toronto Zoo after 37 years, and will be flown on Aug. 2, 2012 to San Andreas, Calif. (Jo-Anne McArthur/Zoocheck Canada/PAWS/AP)

For elephants to fly, you have to do more than load trunks on a plane.

Pat Derby, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, has been working for two years to get three 4,500-kilogram elephants in the air. The elephants are scheduled to take off on Aug. 2 in what could be a million-dollar move.

The African elephants, Iringa, 42, Toka, 41, and Thika, 31, are being retired from the Toronto Zoo and moved to PAWS' 930-hectare sanctuary in San Andreas.

To get the elephants ready to fly, the animals had to undergo crate and noise training. A Russian cargo jet and two fleets of trucks had to be rented; pilots, drivers and crews hired; crates built and fitted for each elephant; hydraulic gates reinstalled at the sanctuary; and barn space cleared.

Lulu, age 47, originally from the San Francisco Zoo, roams at the sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. (AP Photo/PAWS, Lisa Jeffries) (Lisa Jeffries/PAWS/AP)

The amount of red tape rivalled only the green involved, but former game show host and animal activist Bob Barker is paying the bill, expected to be between $750,000 and $1 million.

The Aug. 2 departure is being questioned by officials in Toronto, who said preparations to move the animals could still take weeks. A spokesman for Michelle Berardinetti, one of the Toronto councillors spearheading the move, said Tuesday that the elephants will most likely not be moved in August.

Zookeepers have been teaching the animals to walk in and out of their travel crates, finished in January. "We rattle the crates and make all kinds of sounds so they are used to noise," Derby said, because "there are no test flights."

Iringa and Toka do have past plane experience — they were flown to Toronto from Mozambique 37 years ago. Would an elephant forget? 

"It would be the way we remember some gut feelings," Joyce Poole, an elephant behaviourist and co-founder of ElephantVoices, said in a phone interview from Norway. "They are used to going in and out of cages and being in small confined spaces. Otherwise, getting back into a truck could bring back some scary feelings. Obviously, they were captured and taken from their families and had some pretty terrifying experiences, but they've been captive for a long time. I think they'll be fine with it."

The elephants fit snugly in their crates and will be tethered so they don't get hurt if they hit ruts in the road or turbulence in the air, Derby said. The Russian cargo plane is bigger than a C-17 so will fit all three elephants easily, along with keepers from Toronto and crews from PAWS.

There may not be on-board movies for the pachyderms, but there will be carrots and other treats in case they get the munchies.

'They will be talking to each other and it probably will be the equivalent of us wondering, 'Where are we going?' and 'What is this?' '—Pat Derby, Performing Animal Welfare Society

Poole said an elephant's ears will also probably pop just like a human's on takeoff and descent. 

Anti-anxiety pills would be dangerous, Derby said. "You want them to have full capacity and be fully aware of everything that's going on. It's not a good idea to tranquilize any animal because they can flop around and get sleepy and go down. They need to be awake and conscious and able to shift their weight and behave normally."

What if they get bored? "The experience itself will stimulate them," Derby said. "They will be talking to each other and it probably will be the equivalent of us wondering, `Where are we going?' and `What is this?"' she said.

Travelling together will also help, she said. "They make sounds we can't even hear, low rumbles and sonic sounds. They will be talking to one another through the whole flight, I am sure," Derby said. There could even be some trumpeting. 

"Trumpets are like exclamation points," Poole said. There are trumpets for play, socializing and alarm. "The one you are most likely to hear is the social trumpet, given in the context of greetings or when groups come together," she said.

The elephants will be in their crates when they leave the Toronto Zoo on trucks, during the flight and during the truck trip from San Francisco to San Andreas, 200 kilometres northeast. That could be a 10-hour trip.

A truck trip would have cost less but would have taken over 40 hours without stops or traffic. Barker said he would rather spend the extra money than make the elephants spend that much time confined in their crates.

'Sweet, lovely, tractable elephants'

At the sanctuary, they will meet their new companions Lulu, 47, Maggie and Mara, both 28, from zoos in San Francisco, Alaska and San Jose, respectively.

"You have to provide them with the opportunity to socialize, as well as the ability to retreat if frightened," Derby said.

There are also three female Asian elephants and two Asian bulls at PAWS but the Africans and Asians are separated, as are the 26 tigers, six bears and five lions at the preserve. Derby has seen video of the Toronto elephants and thinks the group of six will get along. 

"They appear to be sweet, lovely, tractable elephants and I'm just excited to get them integrated into our group so they can have a wonderful social life. Our three girls have missed being in a larger group," she said.

It's hard to know how long retirement will last. Africans live to be 60 or 70 in the wild but in captivity, they don't survive well past 50, Derby said.

In the wild, 50-year-old female elephants are still having calves, but none of the animals at PAWS will ever be bred. 

"To breed them in captivity is criminal," Derby said.

"I'm sure in the zoo world, it's a big issue. Not in our world. It's very sad to see calves born in captivity and be doomed to a life of living in what is virtually a prison. No captive facility can really provide everything that an elephant needs. We provide a lot but we can't provide everything. We have huge habitats, but it's nothing like the size of their territory in the wild. It just doesn't compare," she said.