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Elephant Keeper Jen Martin examines the mouth of her charge 41 year old Toka.CUPE 1600, representing workers at the Toronto Zoo, can no longer remain silent on the issue of transferring the zoo’s three aged elephants to a private sanctuary in California.

Last week Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly to send the female elephants, Iringa (aged 42), Toka (aged 41) and the largest Thika (31) who stands at 9 feet tall, 12 feet long and weighs 8,200 lbs, to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in northern California.

What the council did was an ‘end run’ around the duly constituted Toronto Zoo Board of Management, who, to their credit, were doing due diligence to find the best possible place for our beloved animals,” said Grant Ankenman, president of CUPE local 1600.

Council didn’t give the Board adequate time to complete the process that had been initiated. We know there are similar and equally beneficial facilities that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA),” Ankenman said.

The Toronto Zoo is currently accredited by AZA and the elephant program there has been awarded the Gold Standard for its advancements in elephant care. The senior elephant keeper, Vernon Presley, is well respected within the zoo community in North America, many of those zoos look to Toronto’s program for support and guidance. Presley chairs the Elephant Management Association (EMA) Training Committee and has facilitated and instructed workshops at several of their annual conferences.

Our zoo keepers are experienced, educated and dedicated. They have a vast collective knowledge of their charges,” Ankenman continued.

Two councillors Michelle Berardinetti, who brought the motion to council, and Raymond Cho are going to California to assess PAWS and we, the union, would request that at least one of our elephant keepers accompany them. Our keepers can assist the councillors in assessing the settlement plan and the elephant program offered at PAWS.

What procedures do they follow to keep them in the best physical and mental health? What is their daily routine and how do they run their program,” Ankenman asked. “This is a complex issue with many facets. Elephant keepers are among those most qualified to assess the overall situation.”

 “Our elephant keepers have been muzzled,” says Ankenman. “The keeper talks with the public have been stopped and our members have been told they cannot speak with the public. Following quotes in two Toronto newspapers they have also been told they cannot communicate with the media either.

Another serious concern is the timeframe. Council has indicated they want the move to take place very soon. This is unrealistic. It may take considerable time to obtain all the permits required to move these animals to the U.S.,” Ankenman continued.

Then there’s the issue of prepping the elephants for travel. There are many levels of training associated with a task this large, and setbacks can occur. Elephants can’t and won’t be forced to do anything that they’re not ready to do.

We will not participate in strong arm tactics – that’s not how we treat our animals and not how we have trained them.

 “These are all serious issues that require knowledge and experience when making decisions affecting their lives,” Ankenman concluded.     


For something that most people never hear, click the play button below to listen to the sound of Toronto elephant Toka purring. The keepers believe that the Toronto elephants purr when they are happy and content and when they are receiving treats and personal attention. The general public rarely, if ever hears this.