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Zoo Fights Elephant Retirement

Elephants don’t belong in the bitter cold of a Canadian winter. That was the conclusion of a report by the staff who look after the three elephants at the Toronto Zoo.The majority of the zoo’s board agreed: The animals should be moved to a California sanctuary that specializes in the care of retired elephants. But the zoo’s management is saying No, rejecting unequivocally any plan to ship the elephants to a sanctuary.

The final decision, by the board of management, is expected on Thursday.

The attitude of the zoo management has nothing to do with what’s best for the elephants, and everything to do with zoo politics and business.

A few weeks ago, celebrity host and animal advocate Bob Barker, hosted an all-day meeting with members of the zoo board, Canadian animal protection group Zoocheck, and the media, to propose a plan for the elephants to be moved to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Barker was willing to pay for the move. And Zoocheck laid out a plan for a new, interactive exhibit that would engage young people in the lives of elephants and would cost a fraction of the $16.5-million that the zoo would have to pay for a new elephant enclosure. It looked like Toka, Thika and Iringa, the three elephants, were headed to a warm, happy and healthy retirement.

So why is zoo management saying no? Their reason sheds light on the inner world of zoos. They’re arguing that PAWS is not certified or accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a zoo trade association.

Well, the reason PAWS isn’t accredited by the AZA is simple and obvious. PAWS isn’t a zoo; it’s a sanctuary. Zoos are in the business of making money by exhibiting animals. Sanctuaries are in the work of protecting animals from exploitation. Expecting PAWS to be accredited by the AZA would be the equivalent of expecting your local humane society to be accredited by the local puppy mill.

PAWS is recognized by the humane community as among the best of its kind. It’s also just expanded its elephant area – courtesy of a gift from Bob Barker. It’s the ideal home for Toka, Thika and Iringa.

There’s still a chance that the zoo’s board will override the views of the management. We’ll update the final decision tomorrow.