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Elephant's death a crossroads for zoo

posted 25 Aug 2010, 12:04 by Bhavi   [ updated 26 Aug 2010, 11:22 ]


Josh Wingrove, Globe & Mail

After four deaths in four years, the Toronto Zoo's elephant herd is down to three - a number considered to be the bare minimum for the good of the animals, leaving management to decide whether to pursue getting new ones or to phase out its exhibit.

At 7:30 a.m. yesterday, zoo staff arrived for work to find 41-year-old Tara, described as the matriarch of the elephants, lying down in her enclosure. They couldn't get her back on her feet, and she died around 11 a.m. The cause of Tara's death is unknown. Her body was left in the pen for a few hours to allow the other elephants to grieve her death. An autopsy has been scheduled, and she'll be buried later.

Tara was one of the zoo's first three elephants when it opened in 1974, and is the latest of the Toronto elephants to die. Patsy, 40, was euthanized in July of 2006, suffering from debilitating arthritis. Tequila, 38, was found dead in her pen last year, while Tessa, 40, died six months ago. An African elephant can live up to 70 years, but Toronto's zoo pegs its elephants' life expectancy at 40 to 45. Tara, at 41, lived longer than any elephant the zoo had.

The Toronto Zoo herd is now a trio: Thika, who is 29 and expected to succeed Tara as the herd's leader, and the aging pair of Iringa and Toka, who both turn 40 next year. Because of the social nature of the female elephants, three is the minimum recommended by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, of which Toronto is an accredited member.

Tara's death has brought Toronto to a fork in the road. It will have to decide whether to add new animals to the zoo's elephant program or shutter it altogether. City Councillor Raymond Cho, who is chairman of the Toronto Zoo Board of Management, said the issue will be discussed at a Dec. 10 board meeting.

"We have to really pay attention to [the question]: 'What is our future plan?' I cannot add anything more. But we'd like to have a very serious discussion in the upcoming board meeting," Mr. Cho said in an interview.

Eric Cole, supervisor of the Toronto Zoo's Savannah section, said it's too early to guess about the elephant program's future.

"We wouldn't even think about that right now. When we've lost an elephant, obviously we reassess, and we look at the remaining elephants and how the dynamic plays out," a sombre Mr. Cole said.

However, Julie Woodyer, a former OSPCA investigator who is now campaigns director for the watchdog Zoo Check Canada, said Toronto's northern climate is ill-suited for elephants despite the Toronto Zoo's mixed indoor-outdoor enclosure.

"This is the thing about this - 40 [years old] is not old for an elephant, if that elephant were to live in the wild or even a large enclosure in a southern climate," Ms. Woodyer said.

"Canada is not elephant friendly... If they [Toronto Zoo management] want to move into the next century as far as animal care [and] conservation are concerned, they have to realize that certain species are not meant for the Canadian climate.

"The fact is, they should probably phase out their elephant program in Toronto." Her suggestion would face opposition from Mr. Cho, who hopes the city keeps its exhibit.

"I love elephants," he said. "[The] Toronto Zoo is a world zoo. We like to have representative animals of all the continents."

The Calgary Zoo is in the same bind - it's also part of the AZA and is down to three elephants, although they are younger than Toronto's. Calgary curator Tim Sinclair-Smith said the zoo's elephant program is popular and helps with research into diseases affecting the at-risk species. It's not going anywhere.

"We're certainly continuing with the program. There's no reason for us not to," he said, adding that the zoo would support Toronto deciding to do the same.

If Toronto or Calgary were to lose another elephant and be left with just two, the AZA wouldn't immediately revoke its membership status if there was a plan to phase the program out or add an animal, AZA spokesman Steve Feldman said.

Noting the autopsy on Tara hasn't been completed, he said there's "no specific evidence that cold weather has harmful effects" on the animals.

Other northern zoos have phased out their programs, and there are two general strategies by which to do so.

One is to stop acquiring elephants, but keep the remaining ones, as was done at Edmonton's Valley Zoo. It's not an ideal situation. The city now has just one elephant, Lucy, and has found itself the target of legal challenges and high-profile pleas from former Price is Right host Bob Barker to move the lonesome animal to a place with other elephants.

The other option would be to ship the remaining elephants to a more appropriate climate. The Detroit Zoo did this in 2005, saying it could no longer provide for the "physical, social and psychological needs" of its two elephants, Winky and Wanda. They were moved to a California sanctuary.

Mr. Cole said staff are stunned by the death of Tara, and the three that preceded it.

"It's a shock. It's really devastating for us to lose that amount of elephants in that time," he said. "We might get another elephant from another zoo in North America, we might not ... We don't know, so we just have to wait and see."