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Toronto Zoo loses accreditation over elephant move

Thika, one of the Toronto Zoo's three elephants that will be transported.

Pat Hewitt/The Canadian Press/Pat Hewitt/The Canadian Press

Council's efforts to help Toronto's trio of aging elephants has put the city's zoo on the outs with one of the sector's major accreditation bodies and put its status in limbo with another.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has pulled its accreditation of the Scarborough attraction, citing the actions of Toronto's city council in the management of animals as the cause. In October, council decided to override the zoo's board and send Iringa, Toka and Thika to the PAWS sanctuary in California, an unaccredited facility long touted by animal-rights activists such as former Price Is Right host Bob Barker.

A staff report had determined that the zoo could not afford the care required for the animals.

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The action prompted both AZA and its Canadian counterpart to warn that the Toronto Zoo's status with their associations could be on the line. Last week, AZA made good on that threat, and the zoo made it public on Wednesday. The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) is still considering the case and has placed the Toronto Zoo in suspension pending a report from zoo staff in September.

"We have requested a full report. When we receive it, we will review the situation and make a decision," said Bill Peters, CAZA's national director.

A staff report to the zoo board last year warned that, without proper certification, the Toronto Zoo would be unable to maintain its animal collection. But zoo chief executive officer John Tracogna said on Wednesday it would be "business as usual" for most of the zoo's activities.

"There will be very minimal impact. Nothing that the public would notice," he said. "We are confident that we are going to address the governance issue in the very short term and be in a position to reapply for accreditation at the next point in time, which is March 31, 2013."

AZA accreditation is required for the zoo to take part in its species survival programs, he said, but there is a two-year period where work can continue. Other exchange programs will be decided on a case-by-case basis he said. The visit of giant pandas Er Shun and Ji Li will not be affected, he said.

Asked about the decision, Mayor Rob Ford said it is the result of council stepping in over the advice of staff. "That's what happens when you do policy on the fly. You should leave it in the staff's hands."

The mayor was absent from council for the vote on the elephants. It passed 31 to 4. "Council sometimes thinks they know better and this is a perfect example of when they don't know better," Mr. Ford said. "It's council's own fault for doing what they did."

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Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who spearheaded the vote, lashed out at the AZA decision, calling it a ploy aimed at reversing council's decision before the elephants' scheduled move next month.

"Toronto Zoo has an excellent reputation. It is an excellent facility and it does not have to rely on foreign accreditation," she said. "This issue was so important to Torontonians that we had to bring it to the council floor."

Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, a member of the zoo's board and a special board task force on governance, called council's action inappropriate. "Council made a decision without a report or knowledge. It was an appeal to their heartstrings, not their heads," said the Etobicoke councillor, who left the chamber before the vote.

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