The long goodbye of the Toronto Zoo elephants

For nearly four decades, the Toronto Zoo has been home to a family of elephants. But that era is set to end, as the zoo is set to move its final three surviving elephants to a U.S. sanctuary by the end of the month.

Millions saw zoo elephants over the decades, but they soon won’t see them any more

Ahead of this Thanksgiving, the Toronto Zoo is running a promo on its website, advising the public that its three elephants, Thika, Toka and Iringa, will soon be gone. (Toronto Zoo website)

A few weeks before the Toronto Zoo opened to the public in the summer of 1974, a group of elephants sailed across the ocean to Toronto, their new home.

Their names were Tantor, Tara and Tessa. They were among the first three elephants to arrive at the newly built zoo. They had once lived in the wild, but they would live out the rest of their lives in Toronto.

Toby Styles sailed with them on their voyage from Europe. He fed them, cleaned their cages and made sure they were looked after.

"In 1974, there weren’t that many big cargo planes as there are now," Styles said in a recent telephone interview, explaining why they came by boat.

Styles said the incoming elephants were comparatively little at that point.

The Metro Toronto Zoo, as it was originally known, saw its first African elephants arrive in the summer of 1974. (CBC)

The family of elephants that would live at the zoo would grow in numbers, reaching as many as nine in the months and years ahead.

But their numbers would dwindle over time and eventually their time in Toronto would end in a long-running squabble, involving the zoo, its workers, advocates and politicians, about how and where the pachyderms should be sent packing.

Ahead of the Thanksgiving weekend, the Toronto Zoo is urging the public to see the elephants — Toka, Thika and Iringa — before they are moved to a sanctuary in California.

It seems as though they are finally going to depart.

Julie Woodyer, the campaigns director for Zoocheck Canada, says the permits are in place and a plan has been made to move them.

While she won’t divulge the exact date of their departure, Woodyer says Toronto's elephant trio will be gone “before the end of the month.”

Life in Toronto

Four elephants were born at the Toronto Zoo, within a period of just a few short years.

In 1980, Thika, one of the last three elephants living at the zoo right now, was born.

The zoo's management board made a decision to phase out its elephant program in 2011. Later that year, city councillors voted to send the elephants to a sanctuary in California. (Courtesy of Don Gorham / Flickr)

Her birth was followed by the arrival of Tumpe, who was born three years later but would be transferred to another zoo later.

Styles said that so-called mega-vertabrates, like elephants, tend to draw the most interest from those who visit zoos. And the ones that lived in Toronto, he said, were "a big part of my life," as Styles worked with them for years to come.

As Styles took on more senior positions at the zoo with time, he was there to watch as new elephants were born and when some of them died.

In 1984, two elephants were born: TW, an elephant that died within days of her birth, as well as an elephant named after the city, Toronto.

In August of 1989, Tantor, the same elephant who was among the first to arrive in Toronto, died following surgery. He was 21 years old.

His passing also brought about the death of the zoo’s breeding program, as he was the only male in the group. And thus, the clock began to count down on the number of elephants living in captivity in Toronto.

Herd halved in 14-month period

Five years after Tantor’s death, the elephant Toronto was dead, leaving just seven elephants in the herd.

More than a decade would pass before the next death — Patsy, a wild elephant who was believed to have been born around 1966.

The zoo said she had been battling health problems, including degenerative arthritis. Treatment was not believed to be an option and she was euthanized.

Her death in July 2006 dropped the number of elephants in the herd to six.

And then about five years ago, the Toronto Zoo lost three members of its six-elephant family in just over 12 months’ time.

In September of 2008, the zoo announced that Tequila had died. The zoo said the 38-year-old elephant was among "the most dominant" herd members since she arrived in Toronto in 1974.

The following year, the zoo lost two more elephants: Tessa and then Tara.

The number of elephants living at the zoo has shrunk since the death of Tantor, the bull, more than two decades ago. For the past four years, just three elephants have been living together in Toronto. (Associated Press/PAWS/Zoocheck Canada, Jo-Anne McArthur)

Tessa was knocked to the ground by one of her peers on June 13, 2009. The 39-year-old elephant was unable to stand again.

The zookeepers did what they could, even enlisting a crane to help get back up. But Tessa could not be saved.

"Elephants, like people, form strong social networks," the zoo said in a news release after Tessa’s death.

"As a mourning process, the remaining Zoo elephants, Thika, Toka, Iringa and Tara, were given time to view the body and mourn Tessa’s death."

Less than six months later, the zoo reported that Tara had been found on her side, unable to stand up, on November 30, 2009.

Debate on fate

The dwindling number of elephants in Toronto became one of the arguments for moving them to another location.

Two years ago, John Tracogna, the zoo’s chief executive officer, issued a report to the board of management recommending that the zoo "phase out" its elephant program.

There were several reasons: The expected $16.5-million cost of upgrading their zoo habitat, the estimated annual $930,000 it would take to look after the herd, as well as the fact that the zoo could lose an important accreditation if they lost another elephant.

Retired game-show host Bob Barker was among the voices putting pressure on the Toronto Zoo and the city to move their elephants to a new home with a warmer climate. (CBC)

Almost 37 years after the first elephants arrived in Toronto, a vote by the zoo management board on May 12, 2011, sealed their fate. That meant that the zoo would have to find Toka, Thika and Iringa a new home. 

The report came amid public pressure from retired game-show host Bob Barker and other animal-welfare advocates to see Toronto send its elephants to a warmer climate.

In October 2011, city councillors voted in favour of sending the three surviving elephants to the PAWS sanctuary in California.

But the move was delayed on several occasions, clashes took place over where they should go, concerns about their future welfare at the sanctuary, as well as how the elephants should be transported.

The surviving Toronto elephants' pending move to California comes amid a wider debate about the fundamental suitability of keeping such creatures in captivity.

As Barker told CBC’s the fifth estate last year, he believes there will come a time where people look back on the days when elephants and other animals were held in zoos as “the dark ages.”

Other zoos, including the Calgary Zoo in Canada, have ended or are slated to end their elephant programs, as Toronto is soon set to do.

The journey south

As of now, the Toronto Zoo is set to move the elephants after Thanksgiving, though the precise date of their departure has not been made public.

Woodyer says they'll be heading south on a pair of trucks, nearly four decades after the first elephants landed here by boat.

Among zoo workers, the decision to send the elephants to California has not been popular — and the fact that the journey will see them spend at least two days  on the road has further upset them.

Matthew Berridge, the vice-president of CUPE 1600, the union local that represents hundreds of workers at the Toronto Zoo, said that zoo keepers had wanted to see the elephants move to Florida. But he said that was rejected because the plan would have seen them taken by truck — even though that is what is going to happen now.

"The system has failed these elephants. Politicians and administrators have failed to live up to their responsibilities to put the elephants' best interests at heart," Berridge said in a statement that was released ahead of the zoo board’s September meeting.

Woodyer said that moving the elephants by ground gives the people watching over them the flexibility to intervene if there are problems during the transport.

"It's not all blissful flowers when you go by air," said Woodyer, noting that nearly all of the time that elephants are moved in North America, they are moved by ground transport.

But when the zoo’s elephants get to where they are going, Woodyer said it will be "wonderful," as they settle into "an ideal environment" to live out their final years in comfort and in the company of their own species.

Lives in captivity

Styles said that in the wild, life is very dangerous for young elephants. They get sick, they starve, in some cases they get hunted by predators or shot by poachers for their ivory tusks.

"We think of them as a super-animal," Styles said, but they are just as vulnerable as any other.

For elephants that make it into their fifth decade, their time on the Earth is limited.

"They are getting a little old to be moved," said Styles, referring to the journey ahead for Toka, Thika and Iringa.

Toby Styles, a retired zoo worker, says that millions of people had a chance to see elephants in the flesh during their 39-plus years in Toronto. (CBC)

And while Styles is sad to see Toronto’s elephants depart, he fears more for the future of the species as a whole, especially as poaching continues and the size of their natural habitat continues to shrink.

Case in point, authorities in Zimbabwe recently arrested nine suspected poachers following a rash of elephant poisonings in Hwange National Park — a place that is home to some of the most densely packed elephant populations in all of Africa.

The ivory is worth big money to the poachers, who are willing to risk jail time for the money they can get.

Styles said that it’s only a matter of time until they are no more.

 "They are going to be gone, they are going to go," said Styles.

Styles said that what zoos do is give a person a chance to see an elephant in the flesh, like the millions who have walked through the Toronto Zoo’s gates over the years and made their way to the African Savanna section.

"That’s what zoos do, they make them real," Styles said.

It's an argument that Woodyer has heard before, but one she can't support.

Woodyer said young children are highly fascinated by dinosaurs and creatures that have never been in zoos, suggesting they don't need to see something in captivity to appreciate it.

In her view, the keeping of elephants in zoos is for entertaining the public and it's simply wrong.

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press


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