What Should Toronto Zoo do with its Elephants?
Written by Donovan Vincent and Jennifer Yang
The Toronto Star
February 14, 2011
A newly released survey of Toronto Zoo visitors has found that even without elephants, 85 percent of respondents would still attend.
The survey of 800 visitors last summer comes as the zoo grapples with declining attendance and what to do with its three remaining elephants.
Prompted by a cluster of elephant deaths, the zoo's board recently hired a consultant to explore the animals' role.
The question of whether to keep them or send them elsewhere will likely be decided soon with a staff report presenting "options" due in the next few months, zoo CEO John Tracogna said after Monday's board meeting.
"It is an important decision. We want to get it right," Tracogna said.
Critics pushing for the animals to be sent to a sanctuary argue elephants experience high mortality rates in Toronto because it's too cold and they lack adequate space to roam.
Others wanting them to remain say the elephants are important for research and eduction, and are an endangered species in the wild.
Amid these arguments, the zoo is exploring whether to expand and renovate its elephant exhibit, an undertaking that would add heated floors, for example. The prices is about $40 million.
"It's not just about the elephants, but the whole exhibit and where it fits into the strategic plan for the overall (zoo). It ($40 million) is a fare chunk of cash," said Joe Torzsok, newly appointed chair of the zoo board.
But Councillor Shelley Carroll wants to move the elephants to a California sanctuary as soon as the spring.
Though not a zoo board member, she told Monday's meeting that visitors to elephant exhibits at zoos "don't have much to see except the animals swaying back and forth in pain." They act that way because they don't have the space to roam and relieve their joints, Carroll argued. Foot problems are also common for elephants in captivity.
Carroll has already presented a petition to city council with more than 1,500 signatures urging the animals be removed from the zoo.
"The zoo really needs to do it now," she said in an interview.
There's no question people love elephants, especially when they breed. In 2009, the Oregon Zoo welcomed a new baby elephant named Samudra and saw attendance numbers reach 1.6 million, an all-time high in 122 years.
But there has been mounting pressure over recent years for zoos to expand their facilities or eliminate elephant exhibits altogether. Closures have occurred everywhere from the Bronx Zoo to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. In India last year, the Central Zoo Authority disallowed all zoos and circuses from keeping elephants, forcing an estimated 140 to be relocated to natural parks and sanctuaries.
But zoos that have lost elephants haven't necessarily been losing out on visitors. After the Detroit Zoo retired its elephants in 2005, attendance actually rose by about 4 per cent in 2006. Performance fared even better the following year, with a 13 per cent increase compared to 2005.
Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoocheck Canada, said many in the zoo industry view elephants as a "box-office species" crucial for drawing visitors. Not so, he argues.
"I think the zoo has created a bit of a mythology within its own industry about elephants and certain animals being something of an absolute necessity," Laidlaw said. "As long as animals are moving and doing something, people don't really care if it's a lizard or a monkey or a zebra."
Toronto Zoo officials wouldn't comment on how losing its elephants might affect attendance. But at the African Lion Safari in Cambridge, the elephants are one of the biggest draws, said marketing manager Lori Latter.
Losing their 16 elephants would definitely "be noticed," she added.
"Elephants are probably one of the top animals that people comment on. I would say it's in the top three (attractions)."
But at the African Lion Safari, the elephants have more than 300 hectares to roam, compared to the Toronto Zoo's outdoor paddock which is less than half a hectare. In winter, the elephants are moved to a heated barn but still venture into the snow on warmer days, Latter said.
Seven elephants have died at the Toronto Zoo since 1984. Last year, Zoocheck Canada filed a freedom of information request for the zoo's necropsy results:
TW, 2 days old, died 1984 from stomach and bowel problems.
Tantor, 20, died 1989 from heart failure shortly after surgery for tusk extraction due to infection.
Toronto, 10, died 1994 from toxemia, secondary to Salmonella gastroenteritis.
Patsy, 39, euthanized 2006 due to chronic pain from arthritis and foot infections.
Tequila, 38, died 2008, found lying on an electric fence. The necropsy report was inconclusive.
Tessa, 40, died 2009. She fell against an electric fence after being hit by another elephant during a struggle over hay. The necropsy report indicates she died from a combination of the attempts to get her on her feet and chronic wasting syndrome.
Tara, 41, died after falling in 2009. She had severe arthritis in both back leg joints, which made it impossible for her to stand. Tara had not been seen lying down in many years.