Toronto Zoo’s elephants on the road to California

Move paid for by former Price is Right host Bob Barker

They’re packed, trunks and all, and are heading south just ahead of winter.

It’s a trip plenty of Canadians make every year. What’s different this time, though, is the group of three making the trip is made up of the Toronto Zoo’s three elephants.

In 2011, Toronto city councillors decided the three female elephants — Iringa, Toka and Thika — should move to PAWS, a wildlife sanctuary in San Andreas, California.

“As far as elephants in North America, this facility is the closest you’re going to get to an environment that meets their biological and behaviour needs,” said Julie Woodyer, campaign director for Zoocheck Canada Inc.

The sanctuary, home to many animals rescued from all over the world, will be a good home for the elephants, Woodyer said. That’s why she approached PAWS founders Ed Stewart and Pat Derby about taking the elephants in, she said.

“I called up Ed Stewart and said: ‘Hey look, Toronto Zoo is relocating their elephants. Would PAWS consider taking them in? Because you have those large 80-acre pads and you’re in a nice moderate climate.’” Woodyer said. “And after much thought and deliberation, Ed and Pat — Pat who since has passed away — said, ‘Yes,’

“It costs a lot of money to keep elephants and it’s not easy to do, but they said, ‘Yes, we’d be happy to help your elephants if that’s what the council decides to do.’”

With a big journey ahead of them, the three elephants went through a long process of crate training before hitting the road this week, Woodyer said.

“Essentially, we just encourage the animals to walk in the crate and once they’re standing in there comfortable, their legs are fastened to the side of the crate,” she said. “The crates are designed to fit them comfortably but not provide excessive space, so that they aren’t moving around too much.

“Secondly, they are equipped with a special strap that, in the case of an animal feeling fatigued, can be raised in support of that animal in parts of the trip.”

Cameras inside the crates allow veterinarians in a support vehicle to monitor Iringa, Toka and Thika 100 per cent of the time during the trip, Woodyer said.

“They are also stopping every three to four hours to physically inspect the animals, and also feed, water, clean and rest them,” she said. “This gives them the opportunity to physically see them, so if they notice anything at all that looks unusual, they could just pull over to make sure everything’s fine.”

Seven elephants have died at the Toronto Zoo over the years, Woodyer said. Elephants are social animals meant to live in groups, so if one of the three had died, the other two would be considered to be in an inappropriate social group, she said.

Julie Woodyer, campaign director for Zoocheck Canada Inc., speaks about why the PAWS facility in California will be a good home for Iringa, Toka and Thika.

PAWS is an exceptional facility located in the foothills of mountains that will make a good home for the elephants, Woodyer said. Iringa, Toka and Thika will have 80 acres of space; they had less than an acre at the Toronto Zoo, she said.

“(PAWS) is a great place for older elephants,” Woodyer said. “One of them hasn’t lied down in quite some time — she’s very arthritic, she has some pretty serious foot problems — which, by the way, is the leading cause of death in captive elephants and it happens to them living in small spaces on small, flat and hard pads.”

The move from the Toronto Zoo to the California sanctuary is being paid for by former Price is Right host Bob Barker, a strong supporter of the PAWS facility, Woodyer said.

“He called me the other day,” she said. “And he said: ‘Do you really think this is going to happen Julie? We’ve been waiting.’

“I said: ‘Bob … it’s happening. We’re finishing it now.”