Former Toronto Zoo elephants begin new life in California

The last three elephants that lived at the Toronto Zoo are now getting acquainted to their new home at a California sanctuary.

Thika, Toka and Iringa safe and sound at their new California home

The last three elephants that lived at the Toronto Zoo are now getting acquainted to their new home at a California sanctuary.

Thika, Toka and Iringa were boarded onto trucks in Toronto last Thursday, to make their long journey through nine states to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif., where they arrived yesterday.

The elephants had lived in Toronto for decades, but will now live out the rest of their lives in the warmer California climate.

On Monday, Ed Stewart of the PAWS sanctuary said the Toronto pachyderms were adjusting just fine.

"They are eating, they’re drinking, they came out of the crates really well," he said.

CBC's current affairs program the fifth estate had exclusive access to the convoy's entire journey, sending live updates throughout the trip to their blog.

Fifth estate producer Lynette Fortune told CBC News on Monday that the elephants' safe arrival brought a wave of relief to members of their transport team.

"People were joyful, it was like a huge weight was lifted from their shoulders," she said. "When we pulled into PAWS, it was like, 'Finally, the journey is over.' They were laughing and crying and embracing each other. It was something to see."

A handful of people had gathered at the entrance to the sanctuary, located about 130 kilometres southeast of Sacramento, to greet the elephants as they arrived.

"People were standing on the side of the highway, waving signs applauding and yelling," Fortune said.

Also there for the arrival was Bob Barker, the former game show host and animal rights activist who covered the cost of the journey.

Barker heralded their safe arrival in California as "a wonderful day" for the elephants.

And although the journey was a success, it wasn't without its tense moments.

In Chicago, the convoy stopped so the elephants could be inspected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The inspection was scheduled, but there were worries it could lead to a long delay.

In the end, the Fish and Wildlife Service agents wished Thika a happy birthday. "They suggested that they buy Thika a muffin to celebrate," said Fortune. "That was [the elephants'] big hurdle and they just breezed right through it."

Further west in Nebraska, high winds brought cold temperatures and had some vehicles swaying on the highway, but again, the elephants were OK.

There were concerns about whether the trio of aging elephants — the oldest is 44 — would be safe over the long journey. There were also public fights between PAWS and Toronto Zoo staff about the animals' welfare during the move. Elephant experts from both groups formed part of the transport team.

Fortune said both groups appeared to have set aside their differences and worked "as a team" during the trip.

The convoy took breaks along the highway every four hours to rest and feed the animals. During these stops, large panels on their crates were removed, offering an unexpected view of the elephants to passersby.

At an Iowa truck stop, Fortune said a group of truckers' "jaws dropped" when they saw the animals.

Long council fight preceded long journey

Although their road journey was a gruelling one, the political fight that preceded their trip was an odyssey in itself.

Toronto city council voted in 2011 to send the three aging elephants to the PAWS sanctuary after animal rights advocates voiced concern for their welfare.

Watch the fifth estate documentary

CBC's the fifth estate will air a full documentary on Friday on CBC television about the Toronto Zoo elephants' trek. Click here to see a sneak preview.

A series of squabbles involving zoo staff, city councillors and animal advocates delayed their departure.

In the end, it was decided to move the elephants to a new home in a warmer climate.

For more than a year, trainers worked with the elephants to prepare them for their move, so that the pachyderms would feel comfortable in their crates when being transported.

At the PAWS sanctuary, the trio is joining eight other elephants, including three female African elephants, named Maggie, Lulu and Mara.


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