A Toronto city councillor is vowing to do everything she can to stop the transfer of three aging African elephants from the Toronto Zoo to a California sanctuary, fearing their safety could be jeopardized and the zoo could lose standing with a national organization.
"It's never over till it's over," councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby told The Globe and Mail Wednesday. "My heart and soul is in this and I believe in doing the right thing for our animals."
On Tuesday, council voted 32-8 to send the trio – Iringa, Toka and Thika – to the 80-acre sanctuary run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society.
The vote came after both the CEO of the Toronto Zoo, John Tracogna, and its top veterinarian presented evidence to council that sending the elephants to the sanctuary would put them at risk of being exposed to tuberculosis.
The motion says the transfer between the zoo and the PAWS sanctuary must happen by Dec. 31.
But Ms. Lindsay Luby said she's looking at all provincial and federal legislation that could stop the elephants from being sent to the facility.
"It's hard to say exactly what it is … it's a work in progress," she said. " But you shouldn't send them to a place where they can get a communicable disease."
A September report by Mr. Tracogna to the zoo's board of management raised some of the most serious concerns about the PAWS facility. The zoo's senior veterinarian had visited the sanctuary and suspected tuberculosis was present. The report said zoo staff were only invited to see one Asian elephant and three African elephants. PAWS staff caring for barns were wearing face masks that "strongly suggested that quarantine was in operation as a result of either a confirmed or suspected case of tuberculosis."
Ms. Lindsay Luby said she's also concerned that the zoo could lose accreditation with the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Losing accreditation could make it harder for the zoo to maintain some of its animal populations.
The zoo's membership is already conditional with CAZA. Council had previously voted to send the elephants to the PAWS sanctuary in October, 2011, going against CAZA's standards that all decisions regarding the welfare of animals must come from zoo professionals.
Tuesday's vote simply re-affirmed council's position.
Bill Peters, CAZA's national director, said the organization will again review the Toronto Zoo's accreditation. Sending the elephants to PAWS, a sanctuary that has not been accredited by CAZA, also went against their standards.
"We will have to have a meeting to consider this, but it does raise some serious questions if the transfer does go through as directed by city council," Mr. Peters said.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, CAZA's U.S. counterpart, has already pulled its accreditation of the Scarborough attraction, citing the actions of Toronto city council in the management of animals as the cause.
Losing accreditation with CAZA could make it harder for the zoo to take part in the breeding and conservation programs that are a major function of professional zoos, Mr. Peters said.
"Zoos that maintain a large range of exotic species, such as the case of Toronto, do need to be able to exchange animals with other accredited facilities in order to maintain their population with an appropriate level of genetic diversity," he said. "It is difficult for a non-accredited facility to gain access to animals from accredited ones."
Mr. Tracogna agrees that a loss of accreditation could negatively affect some of the zoo's populations.
"If we lost accreditation that would be an area of concern. It doesn't fully limit the ability of the Toronto Zoo … but definitely it would complicate things and it's not our preferred option," he said
But he added that he is optimistic accreditation will be maintained because of a new governing model that the zoo is continuing to refine, one he says is inline with the majority of zoological institutions in North America.
"We are having a series of discussions with the city manager's office. If we get that in place that should strengthen our governance of the zoo and solidify the accreditation," he said.
Mr. Tracogna added that it was too early to know exactly what council's role would be, but that aspect of the governing model would be looked at carefully.
The zoo and PAWS are still sorting out the logistics of how the elephants will be transferred to the sanctuary.
On Wednesday, Ms. Lindsay Luby was critical of many of her fellow councillors.
"I'm not an expert, nor is anyone on council," she said. "When you don't know the details, it's easy to make a decision."