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Councillor proposes zoo replace real elephants with interactive displays

posted 25 Aug 2010, 12:06 by Bhavi Aloysious   [ updated 26 Aug 2010, 11:22 ]

2010-03-04

David Nickle, InsideToronto.com

Fourth elephant death in four years prompts concerns

Tara the elephant died at the Toronto Zoo in November of 2009. She was the zoo's fourth elephant to die in the past four years. A Scarborough councillor and zoo board member is proposing the live elephant exhibit be replaced with an interactive one. Courtesy Photo The Toronto Zoo should replace its live elephant habitat with an interactive display that has everything to satisfy a visitor's curiosity about elephants - except the elephants themselves, according to zoo board member Glenn De Baeremaeker.

"I've been convinced - that in terms of the compassionate care of elephants, they shouldn't be here," said Ward 38 Scarborough Centre Councillor De Baeremaeker.

"Their requirements to live a balanced and healthy life just can't be met at the zoo - even a zoo as large as the Toronto Zoo. Where they walk dozens of kilometres in the wild, here they have to walk in a circle. In some ways, it's the equivalent of keeping a human locked up in a bathtub."

De Baeremaeker made the comments in response to calls from animal advocacy groups like Zoowatch Canada to close the zoo's elephant exhibit.

Over the past four years, the zoo has lost four of its elephants. Most recently, Tara - who was 41 - collapsed on the floor of her pen, where keepers found her early on the morning of Nov. 30, 2009.

Zoo staff managed to help Tara stand on her back feet but she couldn't muster the strength to free and stand on a front leg pinned under her. Tara's death was the third time in just 14 months that the zoo's small herd has lost a member.

Tessa, 39, died in June, 2009, after she was in pushed over by another elephant, and Tequila, 38, died in September 2008. Patsy, the previous group matriarch, was euthanized at 40 in 2006 because she had painful, degenerative arthritis. All four elephants arrived around the time the zoo opened in 1974. The zoo says the average captive elephant lifespan is 40 to 45 years.

A 2008 study published in the journal Nature indicated that zoo captivity has a dramatic shortening of elephants' natural lifespan of 60 to 70 years. The Toronto Zoo is contemplating a $40-million expansion to its existing facility.

However, De Baeremaeker said he intends to bring a proposal by Zoocheck Canada to the board, which would see the zoo spend about $15 million on an interactive display.

"I think we could give visitors to the zoo a much more exciting and interactive experience, where children could touch the real skeletons of elephants - they could actually touch the hides of different elephants - they could see photographs 15 and 20 feet tall, they could get up close and personal," said De Baeremaeker.

The proposed interactive centre would also let visitors view elephants on nature preserves, live via webcam, and have the feeling of a real stampede.

"If you say, 'Well, you don't get to see a live elephant,' my response is, 'You don't, but you have more fun,'" said De Baeremaeker.

Fellow zoo board member and Scarborough-Agincourt Councillor Norm Kelly said he's willing to look at the proposal, but was skeptical that an interactive multi-media experience would be able to replace the experience for visitors.

"It's the difference between watching a hockey game on TV and going down to the Gardens," said Kelly. "I have an open mind on this - I'd like to see the arguments. But the question is, why have a zoo? There is something for seeing live animals that you otherwise wouldn't see. I think there's an emotional connection. Maybe the zoo has other ways to address the issue."
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