How the Toronto Zoo moved their 3 retired elephants to California
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How do you move an elephant from Toronto to California?
How do you make the same move with three elephants weighing a total of 8,200 kilograms?
That said, moving mammals of this size is anything but a joke, especially on a 4,500-kilometre road trip across the Rocky Mountains.
Nobody had ever loaded three African elephants from the Toronto Zoo onto flatbed trucks and set off, in heavy rain no less, on a trip to their new home at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas, Calif. At times over two years of squabbling among the humans involved — including more nastiness on moving day — it appeared they would never leave.
But Iringa, 44, Toka, 43, and Thika, 33, are on their way to deluxe retirement.
Thika, the biggest, is in a crate on one truck. Iringa and Toka are in separate crates on another truck.
Just after 10:30 p.m. Thursday, two flatbed trucks carried them out onto Old Finch Rd. and the start of a journey, estimated to cost more than $300,000 and paid for by animal activist Bob Barker. It’s the scenic route along I-80 and, by Saturday evening if all goes well, they should be moving into the Rockies. Arrival at the sanctuary, 130 kilometres southeast of Sacramento, is pegged for sometime Sunday.
Teams of drivers plan shifts during the expected 50-55 hours of driving, with rest stops only to feed, water and cater to the elephants’ needs. Six facilities are on alert along the route.
This is their time to live large, on 35 hectares of rolling grassland with trees, meadows, lakes, mud wallows, a walnut orchard and three heated barns, one with a Jacuzzi. Good for Iringa’s arthritis.
They’ll never wear chains again.
It will be up to them how they spend their time. Unless it’s below 4.4 C they can sleep outside. Do they want to make friends with Maggie, Mara and Lulu, African elephants already in residence? Their choice.
Along with their intelligence, elephants have distinct personalities and quirks. As the oldest, Iringa is the undisputed leader, according to sources. Toka is high-strung and Thika can be a “brat” — but a lovable brat.
It will be interesting to see what friendships form. On its website, PAWS says Maggie, flown to the sanctuary from Alaska’s Anchorage Zoo in a U.S. Air Force cargo plane in 2007 is spoiled by Mara and Lulu.
Animal behaviorist Margaret Whittaker, from Active Environments in California, heads the elephant transport team for PAWS and wrote the plan. She based decisions on her own experience and that of elephant experts, as well as the “Transport Guide for Elephants,” released by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in January 2012. (Its Canadian organization is CAZA.)
There were permits to acquire, a sign-off from Toronto Zoo CEO John Tracogna, confirmation of good health by the zoo’s senior vet, Graham Crawshaw, and the selection of a transport team. That team included two vets from the Oakland Zoo, three U.S. handlers and, in a last-minute deal, three Toronto elephant keepers and Dave Barney, Toronto’s manager for animal care. They travel in RVs.
They’re carrying medical supplies, water and a mandated two-week supply of food for the animals. Whittaker didn’t just have to bring food from their Toronto diet, but a selection of what the three will eat at their new home for transition on route, albeit a short one.
California hay is different — it is California, after all. At PAWS, their diet will include hay, grass, brush and trees, supplemented with Mazuri elephant pellets, bran, oats, Vitamin E, fresh fruit and vegetables.
Not that they didn’t eat well in Toronto. During the wait Thursday night, the three munched on yams, oranges and cauliflower. They love veggies.
For the elephants, the crates came first, big steel structures that the AZA travel plan says have to have “enough space (for them) to stand comfortably but not turn around.” Foot restraints are used during transport, and emergency straps are ready in case an elephant goes down.
A tray 32 centimetres deep with absorbent material slides under each crate to catch urine, emptied out during stops. Feces are raked by handlers and put into “poop bags” tightly tied and given to PAWS upon arrival. Nothing can be dumped on the road.
Two heaters are affixed at the bottom of each crate in front, and covered vents keep air circulating. Cameras focus on the elephants, with monitors in both the trucks and RV escort vehicles to keep track of them 24/7.
A Toronto paddock measuring one hectare is essentially all these three have known, although they’re so smart it’s very likely Iringa and Toka remember life before their capture in Mozambique in 1974.
Thika was born at the Toronto Zoo in 1980.
In May 2011, the board for the zoo, which is owned by the city, decided to close its elephant exhibit over high costs and the consensus that elephants should be in a warmer climate. Certainly the deaths of seven elephants at the Toronto Zoo since 1984 had to be a factor. The board instructed zoo management to investigate AZA-accredited zoos that met Toronto standards and could take the elephants. They were also supposed to look into the PAWS sanctuary.
In October 2011, with another winter approaching and no written recommendation from zoo management, council voted for PAWS as best meeting the board’s criteria. Sanctuaries are accredited but follow different rules than zoos. There is no breeding, animals aren’t sold and they’re not open to the public.
The battle against PAWS began. Even last week, with the trip imminent, Toronto media got an anonymous note: “Toronto elephants leave to head to their certain death at the PAWS TB death camp . . . ”
On moving day, CAZA sent a message of condolence to Toronto zookeepers.
The elephant transport guide recommends that handlers familiar with the elephants should be included in the move. That almost didn’t happen. Two weeks ago, Whittaker told the Star there had been no decision but that no Toronto elephant keepers who publicly attacked PAWS or co-owner Ed Stewart through social media would be included.
Late Thursday afternoon, the crates were hoisted one by one and placed on the 53-foot flatbeds. Julie Woodyer, campaigns director for Zoocheck, an animal welfare group that worked with PAWS, believes that was the most unsettling time, as they were briefly in the air. Before the trucks pulled out, she said: “I am so very happy for the girls.”
Old hands are involved in this trip. Pat Lampi, director of the Anchorage Zoo, went from being a PAWS foe to a huge supporter who visits Maggie occasionally. He flew to Toronto to drive one of the vehicles.
There’s only one person missing from the caravan.
Pat Derby, who co-founded PAWS with her partner Stewart, worked tirelessly for the elephant transfer as she slowly weakened from cancer. Last February, she died.
Elephants are such mystic creatures one can only surmise that Derby is somehow part of the caravan in spirit.