The Toronto councillors are giving the Toronto Zoo elephants the gift of freedom this Christmas.
The elephant in some cultures is a sacred animal. In Thailand the white elephant is considered to be holy. In countries such as Sri Lanka, elephants are used in festivals.
Without a doubt the elephant is one of the largest mammals to survive on earth and as majestic and beautiful they may be, they are still the centre of attention in political and ethical issues.
This large animal requires lots of space to be happy and to stay alive. As elephants are indigenous to South Asia and various regions in Africa, they require warm weather in order to live.
Elephants are also victims of animal poachers who go after their tusks for the production of various consumer products such as piano keys, shirt buttons and ivory jewellery. This highly illegal industry, generates lots of money and with that in mind, conservationists believe elephants may face extinction by the year 2020.
Toronto is simply not an ideal place for an elephant to live. The weather is too cold for the majority of the year with only a few warm months of summer.
Among budgeting discussion, Rob Ford’s plans to cut down on the “gravy” and the TTC fare hikes, Toronto has also been facing some drama over three elephants at the Toronto Zoo.
It’s not just Torontonians the city council needs to please, but also the elephants in the Toronto Zoo due to the high price of building more adequate living conditions and space throughout the zoo for the elephants. The current space dedicated to the elephant program is only about an acre and it was built 30 years ago.
Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, was very adamant about moving these three elephants to a sanctuary in California. The vote in the city council was 31 to four in the decision of moving the elephants (Iringa, Toka and Thika).
How will these animals be moved to California all the way from Toronto? Zoo board member, Glenn De Baeremaeker, indicated that the elephants have been receiving training by animal trainers.
A lot of the exercises include basic stretches and other movements that will help maintain the animals in shape. The elephants will be moved inside large crates and shipped out of Toronto to their paradise in the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary.
The elephants are being prepared to be moved by truck or possibly air transit, in either case the keepers have been training them to adapt in closed quarters for the duration of the trip.
Earlier in the fall the elephants were showcased to guests of the zoo doing their stretches with the assistance of zoo keepers. The stretches and exercises are designed to engage various parts of the elephant’s body so they are able to keep up with the movement of the truck or plane while on the road. Their favourite snacks tend to be apples.
In some cases private logistics companies are in charge of moving elephants. In this case PAWS will be the one in charge of moving the elephants from Toronto to the sanctuary. Councillor Raymond Cho indicated that the elephants are probably going to move by trailer, which means land transit, but they could move by airplane depending on the weather conditions.
“If they move in the middle of the winter, like January and February, most likely they will go by air cargo,” he said.
The animals will move by trailer on land if they move during the month of April, since the weather is more appropriate around that time. The moving expenses will be paid for by PAWS which come to about $300,000.
“I went to see PAWS myself and make sure that the elephants would go the right place. I spent my own money; I went November the sixth and came back. I was most impressed, this was like elephant paradise,” he said.
Raymond Cho is one of the councillors who are adamant about moving these animals to a good place for their retirement. In addition he was impressed by the number of stations they had in the sanctuary.
“It’s wide open, they have a green field, they have mountains, they have a little lake where they could go swim and they even have a Jacuzzi!” he said.
Once the elephants arrive at the PAWS sanctuary they will receive service around the clock by professionals who work on site.
Michelle Berardinetti is another councillor who feels strongly about retiring the elephants to the PAWS sanctuary. She also believes that the elephants could be transported before April.
“They could actually have them ready by March. It only takes about anywhere from 10 days to a few weeks. The maximum would be a month or two to train the elephants, to prepare them to move, we have actually given them an extra few months just because of the permit process,” she said.
The permit needs to be processed because this is an international operation since the animals will be moving from Toronto to California.
“It could take about 60 days to prepare for that,” she said.
Councillor Cho believes it’s a win-win situation for the animals and the city of Toronto, but there has been some backlash from the zoo keepers of the Toronto Zoo. Some of these keepers posted negative comments against Councillor Berardinetti because they simply don’t want the elephants to leave.
“It’s probably because their jobs are at risk. If the elephants are transported and we don’t have the elephant program any further then we don’t need elephant trainers,” she said.
Councillor Cho thinks their backlash towards the city council stems deeper than that.
“They are upset the elephants will leave them. In psychological terms it’s called ‘separation anxiety’,” he said.
He believes that because the trainers have looked after the elephants for so many years over time they feel connected to the animals and are becoming upset that they are no longer going to see them.
Councillor Cho is experienced in dealing with zoo politics. Cho is a board member at the zoo. He says the keepers haven’t been to the PAWS facility and given his background .he feels it’s the best place for the animals to be.
“The Toronto Zoo is a very good organization and animal centre. The reasons the Toronto Zoo should decide the elephant to go is first, the weather is too cold for elephants and the Toronto Zoo doesn’t have enough space,” he said.
Councillor Berardinetti has been involved as part of the legislation of animal welfare issues for over 19 years while she was working at Queen’s Park, she has consulted with professionals regarding the animals and they all spoke favourably for the sanctuary in California.
“Our role as city councillors is to get the best advice,” she said.
Aside from the welfare of the elephants, this move is showing to be beneficial to the city of Toronto. To build a large enough facility in the Toronto Zoo that can accommodate these large animals would cost the city about $20-$50 million, but sending them away can save the city $600,000 a year.
“We personally are exceedingly happy because we are giving the best Christmas gift to the elephants: freedom,” Cho said.
Not only might this be a great Christmas gift for the animals, but also the Toronto tax payers too, as they won’t need to worry about paying more taxes than they should for elephant upkeep.