A Toronto resident has launched a public attack against the Galt-based Performing Animal Welfare Society, with hopes of thwarting plans to move three elephants from Canada to the San Andreas sanctuary.
It started with an unsolicited email in March sent to close to 50 recipients, including local media, national publications such as the New York Times and Huffington Post, and animal rights organizations such as primatologist Jan Goodall’s group.
The letter was signed “a representative of a very concerned group” and came from the email address “truth for the Toronto Zoo elephants.” Among other things, the writer is concerned about PAWS elephants’ exposure to tuberculosis and transferring three aging elephants there from the Toronto Zoo.
Opponents claim the October decision was made hastily and by the wrong people; the Toronto City Councillors approved the move without direct input from zoo staff.
The trio of Toronto elephants — affectionately known as the “TZ 3” — was scheduled to leave Canada for California by cargo airplane Monday.
Now it’s not clear when or even if PAWS will receive the trio. Activist Bob Barker, a friend of PAWS founder and president Pat Derby, has reportedly wavered on whether he will pay for the flight to move them due to legal wrangling, according to newspapers in Canada.
Derby, who could not be reached for comment but has issued a statement via PAWS’ website and written a letter addressing the controversy to the Toronto Star, said she doesn’t blame Barker.
“(His) generous donation deserves a huge vote of gratitude from everyone in the city,” she wrote in a letter to the editor of the Toronto Star this weekend. “If Mr. Barker decides to withdraw his offer, and he should, the city and the taxpayers who support the zoo will be left with a million-dollar financial burden.”
At the center of the latest effort to thwart the move is that the elephants will be joining PAWS’ elephants, which have been exposed to carriers of TB.
Elephants can not only carry the same strain of TB that humans can, but they can transmit the highly contagious disease to both humans and one another. In 1993, the World Health Organization declared the tuberculosis epidemic to be a global emergency, as some elephants come into frequent contact with the public through circuses, elephant rides and exhibitions.
Derby has posted a response on her website’s blog refuting the “truth for the Toronto Zoo elephants” group’s claims and summarizing efforts to combat TB at the organization’s two sites.
On the public blog post, she said there are two relatively new blood tests that are not approved or used in Canada but are required by the United States Department of Agriculture, which indicate if the elephant has ever been exposed to TB. If an elephant is reactive to either test, the USDA recommends more frequent trunk wash testing for that elephant, according to Derby.
Because PAWS accepts elephants from zoos known to have active TB, they are always quarantined for at least one year and trunk wash tested several times. For example, two such elephants were kept at PAWS’ Galt facility — the only elephants on that property — for a year and a half before being moved to San Andreas, Derby wrote. And another, known as “Prince,” is currently in an isolated quarantine area there.
“All of our African elephants, with which the Toronto elephants will be housed, have been non-reactive to the blood tests, and we always keep separate cleaning equipment, feed buckets and supplies for each elephant barn,” Derby wrote. She added that the African elephant habitat and barn is completely separate from all other elephants and barns.
Prince, who has tested reactive to one of the blood tests, receives trunk wash tests frequently and cultures are consistently negative, according to Derby.
The day after her post, the same anonymous “concerned group,” whose writer declined to provide a name to the News-Sentinel, responded with a follow-up email.
“PAWS has ... finally under duress admitted that they do have TB in their elephants. I would imagine they are only admitting to the most obvious once it’s clear they are in denial and not in control of the disease,” the writer claimed.
In the ongoing public debate, Derby has also lashed out at the Toronto Star newspaper after an article was published Friday that implied Barker was among the reasons an international organization that sets the standards for most major North American zoos stripped the Toronto Zoo of its accreditation. Some claim the reason is because the zoo is sending its elephants to PAWS, an unaccredited facility.
But the future of the elephant exhibit became an issue after seven elephants died at the zoo since 1984, according to the Star newspaper.
Consultants were hired to explore the best options, and a staff report released last year recommended phasing out the elephant exhibit due to costs.
In the end, the email author, who told the News-Sentinel they are a Toronto citizen but neither a zookeeper nor a zoo employee, said the group wants what’s best for the original trio of elephants that have lived nowhere else other than the Toronto Zoo.
“I understand that a lot of people feel PAWS is the only place these elephants could go, but they have other options available to them and their caregivers — not politicians — should be deciding the best homes for these specific elephants,” the writer said.
Since the zoo is owned by the city of Toronto, the city council makes decisions about its animals.
“PAWS is a fine facility for circus elephants who have tuberculosis or have been exposed to TB previously — these animals need somewhere to retire from a life of performing,” the writer said in an email Monday.
“(PAWS) is an organization that is fixated on acquiring healthy new animals and placing them into a situation where they may be infected. ... The only way to be 100 percent sure you would not infect a healthy animal is not to move one there in the first place. It is not worthwhile to move the elephants to a home where they will not get a diverse family life but may get TB.”
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at email@example.com.