Toka, Thika and Iringa drove into the Performing Animals Welfare Society’s sanctuary outside San Andreas, California just before 6 p.m. yesterday after a journey of nearly 3,000 miles.
After three years of petitions, agreements, disagreements, votes, flight plans, road plans, preparations, hold-ups, green lights, and more red lights, finally, on Thursday evening at 10 p.m., two big trucks pulled out of the Toronto Zoo carrying their precious cargo of three elephants. Finally, they were on their way.
Even the final departure was not without incident. According to Julie Woodyer, campaign director of Zoocheck Canada, which organized and managed the transfer, senior zoo officials tried to create a further last-minute delay by calling in government officials to do a whole new review of the arrangements while the elephants waited another five hours in their crates in the trucks.
The AZA didn’t want people seeing elephants going anywhere that isn’t a zoo.
Overall, it had taken more than two years from the time the board of the Toronto Zoo and then the city council ruled that the three elephants should be released to the care of a sanctuary.
Prior to that, animal protection groups led by ZooCheck Canada had been working for years to have the elephants transferred from their very inadequate conditions. The issue gained steam when 87-year-old Bob Barker, retired host of The Price Is Right, went to Toronto in April 2011 to host a press conference. Barker introduced various experts, including the Nonhuman Rights Project’s science director, Dr. Lori Marino, who spoke about the large, complex brains of elephants.
Two years of stalling and prevaricating ensued. At one point, Barker offered to rent a cargo plane, at a cost of $880,000. The zoo agreed, and the trip was set for August 2nd, 2012, but then the Canadian Air Force backed out of the plan.
Finally it was agreed that the elephants should travel by truck.
Bob Barker, now 90 years old, was on hand at the PAWS sanctuary yesterday to welcome the trio. The long caravan from Toronto included the two elephant trucks, travel trailers containing veterinary experts, teams from ZooCheck and caregivers from the zoo, and security vehicles.
“The biggest difficulty for us in organizing this move was the Toronto Zoo,” Barker told reporters. “The zoo found every possible obstacle to put in the way of PAWS. The zoo has been totally uncooperative.”
That’s true of zoo officials, but the board and many staff members did support the move. Among those who opposed it vehemently, however, was the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which urged the Toronto Zoo not to give up the elephants. For obvious political reasons, the AZA didn’t want people seeing zoo animals going anywhere that isn’t a zoo, anywhere that the AZA can’t control, and anywhere that might give the impression that there are better places for elephants than zoos.
When the decision was made, the AZA retaliated by pulling the accreditation of the zoo. (The organization later reinstated it.)
Toronto City Councilor Michelle Berardinetti, who led the motion at the Toronto city council calling for the move to PAWS, said: “The reality is what we’re seeing here is the bully (the AZA) that’s trying to tell us what to do, and tell the taxpayers and residents of Toronto what to do, with our elephants. The other issue is why are they doing it right now? They just happen to be doing it when we’re getting ready to move the elephants.”
Happily, that’s all history now, and a new life begins for Toka, Thika and Iringa.
The three elephants will stay in special barns until they’re given the OK to be released into the open part of the sanctuary, where they’ll be able to roam the fields and pastures, check out the ponds and lakes, and live like real elephants. Hopefully, too, being able to walk about will be good for the arthritis that’s plagued them as a result of standing around at the zoo.
Iringa and Toka were captured in Mozambique and brought to the zoo in 1974. Thika was born at the zoo, and the two-acre paddock is all she has ever known – until now.