If everything goes according to plan, the Toronto Zoo's three aging African elephants – Toka, Thika, and Iringa  will board a massive cargo plane on or around August 3, an Antonov An-124, designed to carry a locomotive or a whale, destined for a Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in sunny California, and retirement. The journey will cost over $600,000, and legendary former game show host Bob Barker is footing the bill.

The fate of Toka, Thika, and Iringa has been the focus of much debate: at the Toronto Zoo, at Toronto City Hall, and in San Andreas, California, their potential new home. You're probably wondering, "How did we get here?" Lucky for you, Agenda producer Meredith Martin has got you covered. She wrote a four-part blog post series exploring why the three elephants are still at the Toronto Zoo, why Toronto City Council got involved, and why it's taken far too long to decide where the three elephants will eventually end up. Read on for excerpts from, and links to, each post.

Update: Previously, we'd written that Toronto's three elephants were headed for retirement in Galt, California. PAWS is headquartered in Galt, California, and the elephants are headed to PAWS' San Andreas, California location. We've made the correction. 

Part I: Why are the Elephants Still at the Toronto Zoo?

The casino that may or may not be coming to Toronto is going to be the focus of much debate at City Hall over the next few months. As it should; it’s a big decision that will affect the city’s budget and landscape for years to come. 

The state of Toronto’s finances was a major concern for the better part of last year, and then suddenly, at the end of April, we found out we were going to have a budget surplus in the hundreds of millions. Surprise!

However, when Toronto City Council voted to send the Toronto Zoo’s three aging elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Galt, California, way back in October, it was still recovering from 24-hour budget negotiations to slash spending; absolutely everything was on the block. So, when Councillor Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) presented Council, in a suprise motion, the option of getting the elephants off the books as soon as possible, it was a shrewd move. The annual maintenance cost of the elephants is $618,533, and the sooner they go, the sooner the Toronto Zoo, and the city, stops paying for them. The motion passed easily (31-4). And, yet, it’s now June, some eight months after the motion passed, and the three elephants – Toka, Thika, and Iringa – still call Toronto home. This blog post attempts to answer my favourite questions of all time: Why?

Before we get there, though, there are some things you should know about elephants, so you can truly understand the conflict. (And I think it’s safe to say that what has happened at the zoo over the moving of the elephants to the PAWS sanctuary is a conflict.) ...

Read the rest of part one

Part II: Elephants as Political Football

As we all know, winters in Toronto are nothing like they are in Africa (this past winter excluded), and while the outdoor space for Toronto’s three aging African elephants is adequate, the indoor space leaves much to be desired. After going through the infrastructure review, and examining the costs of updating the elephant exhibit, it was decided that the Toronto Zoo could no longer adequately house the elephants without sinking many millions of dollars into a new facility -- money the zoo just doesn’t have.

In May 2011, the zoo administration consulted Toronto’s Zoo Board of Management, and it was announced the exhibit would be closed as soon as a new and appropriate home for the elephants could be found.

Although the zoo has decommissioned exhibits before, it has never closed one this size. The next task was for the zoo administration to come up with a list of possible sites that would be appropriate for the three “ladies,” as they are oft referred, to be sent to. But they never got that far. On October 24, 2011, Toronto City Councillor Michelle Berardinetti put forward a surprise motion, seconded by Councillor Raymond Cho (Ward 42, Scarborough-Rouge River), proposing that city council vote that the elephants be sent to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), in Galt, California. And when council handily passed the motion, it did something it had never done before: It took a decision out of the hands of the trained professionals at the Toronto Zoo and the Toronto Zoo’s Board of Management, and made it a political one. And this is why the decommissioning of the elephant exhibit and the relocation of the “three ladies” has become so contentious.

This is also where things get pretty complicated. ...

Read the rest of part two.

Part III: Elephant Philosophy

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or the AZA as it's otherwise known, is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to "the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation." In order to become accredited with the AZA, a zoo or aquarium must go through a lengthy and vigorous screening process. Fewer than 10 per cent of the approximately 2,400 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited. The AZA is aiming to be the gold standard by which one can judge a zoo. Two examples of AZA accredited exhibits include the San Diego Zoo, one of the most famous zoos in the world, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. However, the Toronto Zoo is not accredited by the AZA. That’s because it lost its accreditation earlier this year, over concerns about its governance. When Toronto City Council determined what should happen to the zoo’s elephants, instead of the professionals at the zoo who are hired for their expertise to make these decisions, the AZA lost confidence in the Toronto Zoo to run its affairs in keeping with the AZA’s best practices.

But it's not just a question of how the decision was made: AZA also sees animal welfare differently than the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), the California sanctuary where Toronto City Council has voted to send the elephants.

PAWS began advocating to move the Toronto Zoo elephants to its facility through Zoocheck Canada, an animal welfare advocacy group, back in 2009. Former American television show host Bob Barker, apparently a big supporter of PAWS, who also has a long history ofadvocating for the spaying and neutering of household pets, even offered to foot the bill for transporting the elephants to the sanctuary at considerable personal expense.

PAWS wildlife sanctuaries are defined on their website as: ...

Read the rest of part three.

Part IV: Elephants in Limbo

Under normal circumstances, board members of the Toronto Zoo, advised by the zoo’s management, and not Toronto City Council, would decide the fate of Toka, Thika, and Iringa.

So why did Councillor Michelle Berardinetti put forward a last-minute motion to send the elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in California? 

I spoke to Councillor Berardinetti at some length, and what I took from the conversation is that she felt that the staff at Toronto Zoo were dragging their feet in finding a place for the elephants to go. I also spoke to Councillor Raymond Cho, who sits on the zoo’s board, and who is a councillor in Scarborough, where the zoo is located, and he corroborated that story. The zoo was simply taking too long to come come up with a potential list of viable locations to transfer the elephants to, so council stepped in.

So, in some respects, this is an argument about due process, and what is and what isn’t a reasonable amount of time for a decision to be made. In May 2011, it was announced that the elephants needed a new home, and in October of the same year, Councillor Berardinetti felt that enough time had passed and it was her job to take action. Does five months to find an appropriate home for three, aging African elephants seem like an onerously long time to you?

And, here we are, it’s June 2012, and the elephants are still very much living at the Toronto Zoo. Why? ...

Read the rest of part four.

Image credits: Concerned Elephant Keepers, and the National Post.