Bryn Weese, Toronto Sun
Pandas or pachyderms? That should be the question for the Toronto Zoo Board, according to one of its outspoken members.
For animal rights activists, though, it should be neither.
Councillor Paul Ainslie says given the recent deaths of two elephants at the zoo in the last six months, attention to the herd -- and the more than 500 other species at the attraction -- should trump a costly plan to bring two pandas to the zoo.
While the zoo board is attempting to raise $250 million over the next decade to fund an ambitious renovation plan, a panda exhibit could ultimately cost an additional $19 million over the life of the decade-long lease of the animals from China.
Without raising additional funds for the pandas, zoo officials have already told the board they would have to sacrifice other exhibits, including potentially beavers, to fund it.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Zoo now has only three female African elephants -- the minimum number allowed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, of which the Toronto Zoo is an accredited member. Elephants are social creatures which need to be part of a herd.
Four elephants, ranging in ages from 38 to 41, have died at the Toronto Zoo in the past four years. Of the remaining elephants, Toka is 39, and Iringa is 40. They're nearing the end of the life expectancy for elephants in captivity, which is about 20 years shy of those in the wild.
"We're going to have to move money around to get another elephant or two to maintain that exhibit," Ainslie said. "I think our priority should be maintaining what we have .... There's no point in ignoring our state of good repair to bring something else in, like pandas, at the expense of losing our elephants, or our giraffes."
The zoo has an $80-million backlog or work that needs to be done.
"How can you have someone walk through the zoo, past a decrepit giraffe house or elephant paddock, to a brand-spanking-new panda exhibit? It doesn't make sense," Ainslie added. "We're planning to rebuild the elephant exhibit. We should do that instead."
Within the next five years, the zoo plans to spend $40 million refurbishing the elephant exhibit, making a 3,000-square-metre winter holding facility complete with rubber matting, and deep sand floors. As well, the renovation plans include a heated windbreak structure, a year-round exercise area, and an off-exhibit yard to promote breeding.
But Julie Woodyer, campaign director for Zoo Check Canada, said the Toronto Zoo could never spend enough to make it viable to keep Elephants in Toronto's cold climate.
Elephants need enormous space to roam around -- travelling up to 30 km a day in the wild -- and also require large herds to fulfil their social needs. "The bottom line is elephants don't belong in Canada. You can't meet their biological and behavioural needs, and we're killing them," Woodyer said. "There is no humane way of keeping elephants in Toronto.
Since 2000, a number of North American Zoos -- most notably, the Detroit Zoo in 2005 -- have closed their elephant exhibits and sent their remaining animals to huge sanctuaries in Tennessee and California.
"Detroit made a tough decision, but there were no repercussions to the zoo. They didn't have any lower attendance," Woodyer said. "If I were the Toronto Zoo, I would be focusing on cold-climate species, and do a small number of things better, rather than trying to do everything.
"They've got to step away from this idea that they've got to have elephants."
But despite calls from Woodyer's group, and others, for the zoo to relinquish its elephants, zoo board members -- including Ainslie -- don't want the animals to go anywhere.
"I think many people who come to the zoo want specifically to see the elephants, so getting rid of the exhibit, for me, is not something that I would entertain or want to see," said Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, a member of the zoo board who is championing the panda acquisition.
He was in China two weeks ago with a zoo staff member trying to secure a 10-year deal for the pandas.
"I know what's happening out there, and it's typical of some organizations to use this (the elephant deaths) as a platform to get rid of zoos, because at the end of the day, that's what these organizations want to do," Mammoliti said.
"But some of us really feel strongly about zoos, and the need for them in terms of education and conservation."
But can the zoo do both?
Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker said he'd only like to see pandas come to the zoo if the majority of the cost is borne by the private sector.
"I hope that money can be primarily raised from the private sector, because the panda is the iconic species of our planet," he said. "I think, for example, there are people who will donate to pandas that may not be as interested in elephants, and vice-versa."
The zoo will have to decide what to do about the future of its elephant herd, but staff are still reeling from Tara's death last week, according to Shanna Young, the zoo's executive director of marketing.
The 41-year-old matriarch of the herd, which had been at the zoo since 1974, died last Monday from still unknown causes.
The zoo board of directors meets Thursday.
ELEPHANTS PAST AND PRESENT
Elephants have been a staple at the Toronto Zoo since it first opened in 1974. Here is a list of it's surviving herd, and those that have died at the Zoo.
Elephant News >