Moments after gazing at the Toronto Zoo's three old elephants, five-year-old Hayden Masters learned that the people in charge of the zoo had decided to ship the animals somewhere else.
What will he miss?
"They walk around and they poo," he said with a giggle.
His dad, Matthew, stepped in to explain. "If you're a little kid, you want to see the biggest animal in the park. But maybe they could replace the elephant pen with a big croc pit. That would keep people coming back."
Zoo staff are not quite ready to make the croc call yet. First they have to decide where Thika, Toka and Iringa, the Toronto Zoo's three female elephants, will go now that the Scarborough facility's board has decided to cancel its 36-year-old elephant program, largely due to costs.
The board reached that unanimous decision on Thursday, but not before several hours of hand-wringing over whether the trio should be shipped to a 2,300-acre animal sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif., a controversial option the board finally voted to pursue only if it can find no takers among accredited zoos.
Former Price is Right host Bob Barker and the zoo watchdog Zoocheck Canada have lobbied heavily in recent months for the animals to be handed over to the California facility. They argue that the African Bush elephants suffer in Toronto's cold weather and that they deserve to retire somewhere resembling their natural habitat.
In a report the board debated on Thursday, zoo staff agreed with Mr. Barker and his ilk that the animals should be moved – but stated unequivocally that they should only go to a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
While big and progressive, the San Andreas facility is neither a zoo nor is it AZA certified.
"When I'm facing my retirement and my kids are deciding what to do with me, I want to go to a licensed nursing home," argued board member Councillor Paul Ainslie. "I think we should look after our elephants the same way."
A motion that would have given the board little choice but to send the elephants to a sanctuary was defeated five votes to two. But that didn't eliminate the possibility of their ever ending up in San Andreas. The board decided to delegate responsibility for finding the animals a new home to its Animal Care and Research Committee. If the committee can't find a suitable AZA-approved zoo – a definite prospect given that two of the trio are over the 40-year average lifespan for captive elephants and make imperfect adoption candidates – it has been instructed to look at the sanctuary option.
"If everything else fails, the sanctuaries could still be on the table," said board chair Joe Torzsok.
The zoo's supervisor of animal care, Eric Cole, was less equivocal after the vote, saying "absolutely not" to a question of whether he'd like to see the animals shipped to a sanctuary. "There are too many unknowns involved as far as I'm concerned," he said. "We know that they would get well taken care of at another AZA institution. I can't say the same about a sanctuary because they don't have any standards that are equivalent to AZA standards."
That sentiment galled at least two board members. Both Councillor Raymond Cho and Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker echoed the majority of the 14 members of the public who spoke at the meeting in arguing that the only reason sanctuaries don't have AZA certification is because they don't qualify. "We can't send them back to Africa," said Mr. Cho, "and what is the next best option? A sanctuary."
The decision stemmed from the stark choice facing Canada's largest zoo: either eliminate the elephant program or spend $16.5-million on a new elephant barn and paddocks to keep up with evolving zoo standards. Pursuing the latter would also have required an expensive search for new elephants, as three is the minimum number permitted under AZA guidelines.
One board member thought the idea of keeping the elephant program never received a fair hearing. "I voted with the rest of the board but I did it very reluctantly," said Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby. "We had a lot of special-interest groups forcing the issue."
Zoo staff have said it will take two or more years to prepare the animals for shipment.
Back in the zoo parking lot, little Hayden Masters and his family seemed willing – elephants or no elephants – to keep up their annual pace of five zoo visits. In fact, he would like the board to turn their attention to the rhino pen next, he said, "because they really stink."