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Toronto Zoo Elephant Victory!

Three elephants to be released to California sanctuary

Toka, Thika and Iringa at the Toronto Zoo

Toronto city councilors have voted overwhelmingly to send the three elephants at the Toronto Zoo to the California sanctuary PAWS (The Performing Animal Welfare Society).

As soon as the 31-4 vote was announced, the council burst into applause. Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who drafted the motion, ran over to hug one of her fellow politicians.

Councillor Josh Matlow tweeted “We did it! Our elephants are going to a sanctuary.”

The decision to move the elephants has long been in contention.

Last May, the board of the Toronto Zoo voted to allow Toka, Thika and Iringa – aged 42, 41 and 30 –to move to a better home following zoo staff report determined the animals were too expensive and unhealthy to keep in the zoo. (The elephants cost more than $600,000 a year to keep, a figure expected to rise upwards of $900,000 a year if they were to remain.)

Earlier, Bob Barker, the animal philanthropist and former game show host, had flown to Toronto to host meetings and press conferences on behalf of the three elephants.

Thika at the Toronto Zoo

But zoo managers, fearful that this would be an admission that zoos are not good places for elephants, pressed for the elephants to be sent to other zoos instead of to PAWS. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a trade association, argued that they needed to go to an “accredited” facility. And since PAWS isn’t a zoo, but a sanctuary, it’s not part of the AZA. Zoos are in the business of making money by exhibiting animals. Sanctuaries are in the work of protecting animals from exploitation.

Zoo staff had been preparing a report with possible alternatives to be presented to the zoo board next month, but Tuesday’s last-minute motion forced the Board to consider the sanctuary option only if an AZA facility didn’t come forward.

Councillor Berardinetti said that the possibility of seeing Toronto’s beloved pachyderms housed in another zoo enclosure prompted her to draft the motion.

The three elephants will not be shipped off immediately south of the border. Zoo officials have begun a six-month process of prepping the animals for travel, so they will have to endure another of Toronto’s freezing winters before heading out, at the earliest, next spring.

“From what I’ve seen with the (PAWS) sanctuary, I think they offer great care to the animals,” said zoo board chairman Joe Torzsok. “I think the biggest challenge of all of this becomes how do we move them safely. They’re like senior citizens. It’s a change of environment and that’s stressful for them. But that risk is there any time you move an animal. Let’s make the move as caring and compassionate as possible.”