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What the Elephants Know

The Toronto Zoo has lost four elephants in as many years, and the fate of the remaining herd—Iringa, Thika and Toka—is uncertain. Can a one-hectare habitat in the middle of a northern city be any kind of home for exotic animals with complex thoughts and feelings?

Senior Citizen: Iringa arrived at the zoo in 1974

On the morning of November 30, at around 7:45, three keepers entered the elephant enclosure at the Toronto Zoo to begin their daily routine. The elephants live on a dusty one-hectare tract of land with huge umbrellas for shade and three simulated termite mounds. During winter, they spend their nights in a concrete building with a corrugated roof, a poured rubber floor and metal bars as thick as tree trunks. That morning, the keepers were greeted with an alarming sight. Tara, the 41-year-old matriarch of the group, was on her side, unable to get up.

Most elephants can’t lie on their sides for extended periods of time—their sheer mass puts too much pressure on their internal organs—so zoo staff immediately began trying to raise her. Getting into the pen with an elephant is dangerous work—one elephant gored a keeper in 1993. But there wasn’t much time, and the team was desperate.

The eight staff who tend to the elephants had agreed that they wanted to be called in if one of their charges ever went down, and soon off-duty keepers were rushing down to the enclosure to help out or, more likely, to say goodbye. The African animal supervisor, Eric Cole, a 30-year zoo veteran with short-cropped hair and the remnants of an Irish brogue, had had some success coaxing fallen elephants back to their feet in the past. At first, Tara swiped angrily at the keepers with her trunk. She eventually calmed down, allowing Cole and his team to get straps underneath her. Using a winch, they raised the 3,800-kilogram animal to her sternum. Tara struggled. She managed to lift her hind legs but wasn’t able to pull her front legs under her. Keepers tried a few more times to raise her, but she wouldn’t budge. At around 11 that morning, Tara died. “She didn’t appear to have the will,” recalled Maria Franke, curator of mammals. “It’s like she decided to let go.”

The keepers were devastated. “It was pretty shattering,” Cole told me. “Everyone was just drained; the staff was all crying.” They brought Tara’s body out to the paddock so that the other elephants, Thika, Toka and Iringa, could mourn her. Elephants are highly social animals, and females live in tight-knit groups their entire lives. When an elephant, particularly the matriarch, dies in the wild, the loss can reverberate for months or even years. There are stories of elephants returning to the bones of a family member years after the death, rubbing their trunks along the teeth of the skull’s lower jaw in the same way they greet one another in life.

Tara had to be autopsied, so mourning could last only a few hours. The zoo’s remaining elephants—animals who lived with Tara for decades—straddled her and stroked her skin. They used their trunks to throw dirt on her. At the end of the day, keepers transported Tara and brought the rest of the elephants back inside for the night. Because the elephants don’t always get along, they are often kept in separate pens and spend the night apart. When keepers arrived the next morning, however, they found all the elephant dung piled close to the connecting corners of their respective pens. The three elephants—the final members of a haphazardly formed family group that had once been eight—had spent that night huddled together, as close to one another as possible.

Two days later, the Toronto Zoo was quiet, empty save for a few groups of teenagers playing hooky and a handful of daycare kids who toddled past the simulated Serengeti bush camp toward the empty Africa Restaurant (a Harvey’s and a Pizza Pizza outlet in a jungle-themed pavilion). It was a bright, unseasonably warm day, and most of the animals were in their outdoor display areas: tigers stretching out in the sunny section of their Indo-Malaya enclosure, muddy-looking polar bears in the new Tundra Trek area, a group of impalas and kudu blinking in a broad pasture, indifferent to the intruding raccoon and flock of Canada geese that compromised the verisimilitude of their savannah habitat.

At the African elephant exhibit, the mood was sombre. A young zookeeper in gumboots and khakis told me that she’d had an emotional few days. “We look after these animals eight hours a day,” she said. “We become close.” Since Tara’s death, the elephants had been unusually subdued, keeping near to one another, acting tentative. Thika, a 30-year-old female, stood motionless under one of the large wooden umbrellas, one foot cocked at the ankle. In the stillness, you could hear the swish of her trunk as she rubbed it over her rough body, over her head, over her ears, over her eyes.

  • Colleen McCaffery

    A very excellent piece. Good work. “Elephants, and everything else.” indeed.

    - ashamed, at the moment, to be a member of the “everything else”

  • Rahul Kushwah

    One of the finest articles ever written, going over the intricacies of keeping creatures as magnificient as elephants in captivity… their intelligence, charm, grandeur does not warrants them for the poor life they face while in captivity… no wonder in religions such as hinduism, elephants have been worshiped for decades… hats off to toronto life for publishing this great article… only if humans could learn something from elephants??

  • Jeanne

    One of the best articles I’ve read about the sad life of captive elephants with both sides of the debate featured.
    We Canadians consider ourselves enlightened and progressive yet we keep these animals in this frozen wasteland. Lucy in Edmonton, Iringa, Toka & Thika….they have a chance at sanctuary, lets give it to them.

  • Julia

    I so hope that these poor elephants will be sent to a sanctuary. They deserve a life as close to natural as possible.

  • Maggie

    A raw, heartfelt account of the sad lives these magnificent animals have in captivity. I pray that Toronto (and Edmonton) will do the right thing soon, and send these beautiful beasts to sanctuary.

  • Laura Cotter

    Thank you Mr. Brown and photographer, Sandy.

    One of….if not Thee best….pieces ever written about elephants. If only zoos would respect animals….. and not the money they earn with them. There can be zoos…..if you can completely replicate the natural space AND CLIMATE the animals in it would normally have. In the case of elephants, visitors might get lucky and see them in a ‘clearing’ or search for them via cameras and add fun to the experience! But they don’t want to do what’s right. There are tiny little zoos everywhere with as many animals crammed in as possible.

    Personally, I’d drive a thousand miles to see the type of zoo I’m thinking of for elephants……if it only contained them and a few of their native companions…..giraffe,zebra, etc. A nice hotel, pool, and variety of eateries and shops….and the place would always be full.

    If we are not going to stand up to governments and vote out anyone who approves of or makes law to allow the current idea of a zoo and take the time to get involved, then we need to take the time to get all of them abolished or rebuilt to new specifications for a few animals.

    Can’t thank you enough!

  • Sadaf Mohamud

    I felt so sad to read that story; those poor elephants have never had families, freedom, and control over their lives ever. They need to go to a sanctuary.

  • Latinoboy

    Time and time again have ask the ZOO board of Management to get on board public input and participation. They have made of this zoo an unique group of individuals whose “ideas” are their best solutions shouting other from participating and cooperating with real solutions.
    As long as there are 6 councilors who are not proactive to move forward the ZOO we will be stuck in the 70′s mentality.

    Miguel Avila
    Citizens Advisory Committees for ABC agencies of the city of Toronto

  • Rene Hersey

    Mr. Brown and Sandy~

    Your writing, the images and insight is a treatise going forward for the ethical rights of large animals in captivity. I hope you will continue to follow the 3 Elephants at Toronto Zoo and write follow up stories documenting their plight. This way the public will gain more understanding about how unfair and fatal captivity is to all Elephants.
    Thank you a million times for your efforts,
    Rene Hersey in California, USA

  • Oliver Braem

    This is just mind-blowing. Thank you for this excellent piece. Wow.

  • Jen

    Thank you Toronto Life for publishing such a well researched piece. I hope this article will convince people that it is time to let the elephants go, they deserve better. With the herd being so painfully small now, the only humane thing to do is to let them live out the rest of their days in an appropriate climate with other elephants in a healthy sized herd, at an elephant sanctuary. Let’s write to our City Councillors, the Mayor and the Toronto Zoo Board, and ask them to make this happen.

  • Junia

    Thank you very much for this excellent article. Please keep working on it, reporting what’s going on with them. I hope that very soon humans realize about the cruelty related to keeping animals in captivity. The ones that are already in zoos must be sent to sanctuaries where they can spend a good life, with other elephants, in the wild. Your words will help it, thank you so much.

  • Edna

    We have to set the remaining elephants free. Why is the Toronto zoo so greedy, so unreasonable? These are majestic animals. They need to live in a proper environment.

    This is the best article I have read in the Toronto Life.
    Thank You. I hope you will have a follow up document to this so people who have read it -will not forget.

  • Scott Lunau

    What an eye-opener. As a life-long Torontonian I had no idea of the personal histories of these magnificent animals. Perhaps it truly is time for us to let go our selfish need to keep the elephants at the Toronto Zoo. Clearly, they are wanted as a star attraction to boost revenues in a budget seemingly impossible to maintain, regardless of the most innovative fundraising efforts. The world’s largest land mammals need a very large living space, a warm climate, and social interaction with their own species. Our “Zoos”, are unable to provide any of these basic requirements to any suitable degree.

  • Cara Gibbons

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece of writing. So much journalism these days seems to pick a side and advance it unrelentingly. In such pieces you can see that the presentation of the facts is skewed by the author’s position and you wonder where the inevitably nuanced and complicated “truth” is underneath the polemic. This makes me all the more appreciative of a piece like this that in my view attempts to take a fair and balanced approach to everyone involved. It is clear that this is a complicated issue with no easy answers. How refreshing to have it presented to us in such an intelligent and forthright manner. More like this please.

  • Hugh Coghill

    Excellent article. The photo on the second page of the article (with the elephant hook in left hand) is of me over 35 years ago. My personal opinions have changed drastically since then and like Toby Styles, I don’t believe that a zoo in a cold climate country like Canada can adequately provide for the needs of elephants. Having worked for over 33 years in animal welfare, leaving the position of Chief Inspector for the OSPCA last December, has given me a much different perspective on certain things. Thanks for writing this article. Hugh Coghill

  • Tom Dunstan

    The photgraph of myself,Tara & Tumpe, on page three is a reminder of the so called,old days. Times have changed! After my retirement much thought,research,probably some guilt ,on my part, my position on captive Elephants changed.I was the first Canadian Elephant Care person to sign THE ELEPHANT CHARTER. My position, on these beautiful beasts is stated in the charter, which can be viewed on the net by your readers. Your article in “Toronto Life” should help make us all concerned of the elephants future. {captive or wild}. It was well done!This note from me, will give you some insight on -”What the old keeper knows “{and feels}. “I still miss them”,the African and Asian Elephants. The Retired Elephant Keeper. Tom Dunstan

  • Michelle

    Since this article was posted in Toronto Life I have made it my mission to make everyone I know aware of the terrible conditions the Elephants have at the Toronto Zoo. I have also contacted school boards asking them to discontinue trips to the Zoo until something is done to help these poor animals – which will hopefully be sending the remaining elephants to a sanctuary. The Toronto Zoo’s Elephant exhibit is rated the second worst in the world and I am embarrassed to be from a city that would be so cruel. It is my hope that something will be done about this soon but until then I will keep spreading the word!

    Kudos to Toronto Life for such a great article!

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  • cjbr

    There is a facility in Florida that is better for them than the one in Calif. where there is active TB in the Asian Herd 50 feet away. The TZ was to build a larger enclosure for the 3 eles but the pandas are now there. This is the only home these 3 elephants know. Why not allow them to spend their final time together in their home with improvements, or in Florida where there is no question of risk? There are snow covered mountains in Africa where elephants used to thrive before the slaughtering by poachers. The elephants have been outside in the winter in the snow for a long time in TO and they do well. Thika eats snow. No I don’t work for the TZ and I’m not an “activist”. I’m highly educated and I’ve read the correspondence between Zoocheck, City Council, and all information in the public realm about this issue. I’ve seen the misquotes; the insular behaviour of those who became quickly committed to preserving a pet ideal; the claims of celebrity endorsement of the move when no such words were uttered ex. Jane Goodall and I’ve learned that Zoocheck is not the institution I once thought it was. I’ve seen self-interested parties pushing their agendas. For once, please, instead of parroting what others say, take a very close look with the welfare of the animals in mind rather than pre-conceived ideas of what an African animal likes. Don’t accept propaganda that celebrities and institutions with names that sound compassionate: call-to-authority is not a valid or a logical argument. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the information is there. You will have to dig. Would you not rather repeat the truth than opinions of those who are fired-up about their own advancement? Ask yourself why the money was not put into the modern enclosure and whom this decision benefits. Who is associated with PAWS and what are their other interests? Don’t get angry at words that you initially view as in opposition to what you may instinctively believe to be so since you have heard others spout it. Find out for yourself because this is an important issue for the elephants whose lives have been changed by politicians who circumvented the process which had been put in place to protect them. It is important for all captive animals whose numbers in the wild are decreasing rapidly due to humans. If you care about them then it is reasonable to want the remaining ones to have a safe place with expert care-givers and proven conservation programs. It is also important that your have an informed opinion. Read about TB in Asian herds and African herds; read about it in elephants in terms of treatment, success rates, necropsy reports, and standards of practice which were disregarded. Read scholarly journals. Visit often and see for yourself the exercise programs, enrichment, interactions with keepers and behaviours exhibited. Read about elephants in the wild, not in tabloids, dailies and opinion-based reporting but by journalists who give references and identify observations vs conclusions.