The Elephant in the Room

Written by Chris Selley
The National Post
February 15, 2011

Among less famous people, Councillor Shelley Carroll and Bob Barker — yeah, that’s right, Bob Barker — want the Toronto Zoo to send its elephants to a more suitable setting in a more suitable climate. Just about anywhere south of 401 and Meadowvale Road would seem to fit the bill, but a sanctuary in California is Ms. Carroll’s preferred destination. I’m inclined to agree with her.

Just about everyone seems to think the zoo’s pachyderm habitat is too small, in addition to being … you know, in Canada. Price estimates for bringing it up to snuff stand at around $40-million, at a time when the zoo struggles to find a quarter of that to house and care for two giant pandas slated to arrive from China. And while I’ll eat just about any beast you’d care to roast and put in front of me, the idea of putting exotic animals on display in inherently stressful circumstances for human beings to gawk at leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

It also strikes me as far less entertaining, and educational, than other animal-themed activities. Parents I know speak of the zoo as a cheap, low-maintenance day out that holds their kids’ attention. But when it comes to the marquee attractions, what are they really seeing? Often as not, lions sleeping, polar bears sleeping and elephants not doing much of anything except being elephants.

Wild Kingdom it isn’t.

Surely children and adults alike would be more entertained and educated by high-definition video of the same creatures let loose in a more natural habitat — wallowing in mud, spraying water out of their trunks, tending their adorable young, or ripping an impala to shreds, as the case may be.

This wouldn’t be an easy financial decision. According to the Toronto Zoo’s on-site survey of visitors, 10.9% of zoo-goers say they’d stop coming if there were no elephants. (Mind you, only 5.9% said elephants were the “most memorable” aspect of their visit.)

Coincidentally, that’s roughly the same number of people who didn’t come to the zoo in 2010 compared to 2009: 108,000 fewer adults, 20,000 fewer children, 7,000 fewer seniors, 10,300 fewer kids on school groups. Daunting numbers.

Most suggestions for attracting more people involve adding marquee animals and exhibits, not sending them to California. But that costs money the zoo will struggle to raise. The pandas might save the day — but only for the five years they’ll be here, assuming they come at all.

The Mayor’s office is making unhappy noises at the idea of an $850,000 loan to get the necessary panda infrastructure built. The zoo’s fundraising efforts are a shambles. And in the longer term, it’s safe to say a rapidly aging population is going to make the zoo’s attendance figures more of a struggle, not less.

Meanwhile, the idea of keeping elephants, polar bears, tigers and other giant exotic animals in captivity is only going to get less popular — especially if elephants keep dying in Toronto at roughly a one-a-year clip.

The zoo has hired a consultant to present “options” on the future of its elephants. We’ll soon know what those options are. Clearly, though, much more fundamental questions loom large.

National Post