Toronto Zoo to cancel elephant program

The Toronto Zoo has decided it's time to find a new home for its three elephants.

The Toronto Zoo has decided it's time to find new homes for its three elephants.

The facility's management board voted 5-2 Thursday in favour of moving Toka, Thika and Iringa to another zoo

The move comes after pressure from animal rights activists — including former game show host Bob Barker —  who argued that Canada's cold climate wasn't suitable for elephants and they should be sent to sanctuaries in the southern United States.

"The good news is they're going to release the three elephants but the bad news is they're considering a zoo," Barker said in a telephone interview.

But the decision doesn't guarantee that the elephants will be sent to warmer climates, only that they will be sent to facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums [AZA].

"Our elephants are wonderful, they're beautiful, they're old," said councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, a member of the board who was one of the two board members who voted against moving them to an AZA accredited zoo.

De Baeremaeker said he wants to be permitted to send the animals to a sanctuary, if the AZA option isn't doable. "They get cold during January. They should be retired somewhere where it's sunny and warm."

The board spent the day hearing submissions on whether to spend millions on a new elephant facility or relocate the animals.

Last Friday the zoo board released a staff report urging the zoo to transfer the three remaining elephants to AZA accredited institutions "with enhanced facilities and animal management programs as soon as practical."

The report said that "[d]ue to the significant capital cost to provide appropriate elephant facilities for the future [estimated $16.5 million], the substantial future operating costs of $930,000 annually, and considering the ongoing research study on captive elephants, these factors together have led zoo staff to make this recommendation to the board."

"While the three elephants are still in good health, the report recommends that they be transferred to one or more accredited AZA institutions," the board said in a statement.

The cost of transferring the three females would be between $30,000 and $50,000.

Activists from Zoocheck Canada had been lobbying to have Toronto's exhibit replaced with an interactive science centre-type display called the Elephant Labyrinth, which would include videos and activities for children.

The zoo will now begin looking for a facility that can take all three elephants but they could end up being separated.

CEO John Tracogna said it would take up to two years to relocate the three female elephants, two of which are in their 40s.

Barker was in Toronto last month hoping to convince zoo officials that a sanctuary in California or Tennessee would be the best option for the animals because there would be more space and softer ground in the winter, which would help prevent potentially painful foot infections. The former host of The Price is Right had also offered to contribute to the cost of relocation.