Animal Rights And Wrongs

12th November 2012

The zoo’s board of management concluded some time ago that it could no longer afford the 8,500-a-year cost of keeping the trio in Toronto. So in a move that mirrored decisions taken by a growing number of zoos elsewhere, it voted to get out of the elephant business for the time being and relocate the trio to an accredited zoo in a warmer location in the United States, where there is a better chance their health will improve.

That’s when the tussle began. Animal welfare advocates, citing the deaths of four other elephants at the Toronto Zoo in the past four years, balked at the plan and began a campaign to send the trio to a sanctuary for rescued animals in California where there is lots of room to roam. They gained an ally in a city councillor who garnered enough support to win a council vote that overturned the zoo’s decision.

The zoo struck back, questioning the sanctuary’s credentials and later raising concerns about infectious diseases reported in some of the elephants currently living there. Rumours and insults flew around the Internet, and letters to the editor in local newspapers seethed with recriminations. The controversy eventually caught the attention of Bob Barker, host of the long-running television game show The Price Is Right. Barker, a well-known animal welfare advocate, first offered to pick up the 0,000 tab of shipping the elephants to the California sanctuary, and then upped the ante to nearly a million dollars when it turned out the elephants would have to travel by chartered aircraft due to a foot problem one of the animals suffers from. “To think that one of them might not survive the trip in a truck touched my heart and purse strings,” Barker said. He’s also been part of a campaign to relocate Lucy, a 36-year-old Asian elephant living alone at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. That fight became a lawsuit that stopped short of the Supreme Court of Canada, which in April refused to hear the case.

While on the surface these disputes are about the welfare of the animals, they’re really part of a bigger debate between people who think zoos should exist and those who think they shouldn’t. And that debate raises fundamental questions about values: Do humans have sovereignty over other creatures? Does putting a few animals on display and perhaps breeding them lead to greater respect and protections for their counterparts still roaming free?

As the controversy over the fate of the Toronto elephants gathered steam, an organization called Zoocheck Canada set out to test one of the basic assumptions about zoos: that they are primarily about conservation and education. “We found that the average length of time that people look at the elephants is 117 seconds,” says Rob Laidlaw, the organization’s founder and director. In a window that brief, “You can see the size, shape and colour of the animal; you can’t see anything else,” he says. Zoo-check’s 2011 survey also found