African elephants Thika, Toka and Iringa left the Toronto Zoo for a California sanctuary. Here’s how they’re living now

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African elephants Thika, Toka and Iringa left the Toronto Zoo for a California sanctuary. Here’s how they’re living now


As the decade comes to a close, the Star looks back at some of the period’s most captivating stories and reveals what’s been happening in the meantime.

In October 2011, after a spate of elephant deaths and harsh criticism from a U.S.-based animal-rights group, city council voted 31 to 4 to send the Toronto Zoo’s three remaining African elephants — Thika, Toka and Iringa — to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif.

Four elephants at the zoo had died in a four-year period, the last two in 2009. Tessa, 40, was knocked over by Thika when she rushed in to grab some hay. Zookeepers tried to get Tessa back on her feet, but she couldn’t stand on her own and died three hours later. Tara, the matriarch of the herd at 41, died five months later. She was mourned by Thika, Toka and Iringa, who surrounded her after her death, reaching out occasionally to touch her with their trunks.

Retired U.S. game show host Bob Barker — who had pleaded with city council before the vote to send the animals to a sanctuary — gave PAWS $300,000 to help it prepare for the arrival of the elephants and promised up to $880,000 more to fly them there.

But that didn’t hasten their departure.

Some zookeepers and staff weren’t happy with city council’s decision. They wanted the animals to go to a facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which PAWS is not.

News leaked out of a positive tuberculosis test on an Asian elephant in quarantine at PAWS, prompting the Toronto Zoo to demand a second inspection of the sanctuary. The zoo also asked for medical reports on the death of every animal at the sanctuary during a five-year period.

As the battle dragged out, the two parties nearly landed in court after the zoo announced the elephants weren’t being transferred because PAWS was refusing to hand over medical records for the elephants already in its care, an allegation denied by a representative of Zoocheck Canada, which was helping facilitate the transfer.

In the end, the animals left for California on Oct. 17, 2013. Put into crates and loaded onto a flatbed truck, they arrived at their new home four days later.

On the phone from California, Ed Stewart is describing how he found out that Thika could swim.

Stewart was eating lunch in his house near her enclosure when he looked out and saw big waves — too big to be caused by the wind that day — on the sanctuary’s lake. He got in his car and drove down there.

When he arrived, he saw Thika — who had never waded in deeper than a couple feet — in the middle of the water, “just splashing and swimming.”

“I was a little bit concerned, because I know they swim well, but I didn’t know that she knew they swim well, said Stewart, chuckling. “So I watched her for a while, and then I called her and she swam over to the shore and got out.

“That was one of the nicest moments in our existence here, and we’ve been here for 35 years.”

Thika (left), an African elephant from the Toronto Zoo, and Mara, from a San Jose zoo, at the Ark 2000 animal sanctuary run by PAWS in San Andreas, Ca.

At 39, Thika is one of the younger elephants at Ark 2000, a 930-hectare preserve in San Andreas, one of three sanctuaries run by PAWS. Toka is nearly 50, in the upper ranges for an elephant in captivity.

Iringa was euthanized 18 months after her arrival. At the time, she was 46 and had a history of degenerative joint and foot disease, one of the leading reasons why elephants in captivity are humanely put down.

Although life in captivity anywhere isn’t ideal, Thika and Toka have access to 32 hectares of the preserve compared to their former enclosure at the zoo, which was less than half a hectare and mostly concrete.

At PAWS, Thika lives in an enclosure with Mara, a 39-year-old elephant who came from a San Jose zoo 30 years ago, rescued when news broke she was going to be sold to a Mexican circus.

Stewart says the two elephants are so inseparable that if they’re apart for more than five minutes, they greet each other as if it had been years.

“They have huge rumbles and roars, like thunder coming out of both of them,” he said. “Part of the greeting is a big urination and putting their trunk all around the other elephant.

“It’s like a celebration of getting back together, and security for them.”

He describes Thika as big and strong and says she can break off pieces of logs to play with.

And when the two elephants get excited, he says they “fly … it’s pretty amazing to see how fast they can go.”

When Thika, Toka and Iringa first arrived, they roomed with the other elephants at the sanctuary, but PAWS split them into two groups after staff saw Thika singling out Toka.

“Thika chased Toka here one time that looked like it would have been a disaster if she had caught her,” said Stewart, noting that elephants can fatally injure each other with their tusks. He says the two elephants had a “history” at the Toronto Zoo.

Toka now lives with Maggie, who came from the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, and Lulu, who will be 54 next year and is the second oldest African elephant in the country. Each had lived with dominant elephants, making them a “little survivor’s club,” said Stewart.

He says Lulu was so scared when she arrived from the San Francisco zoo that she crawled on her knees when she was introduced to the other elephants in the barn.

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“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “It was the saddest thing.”

Toka is something of a favourite at PAWS and Stewart says everyone at the sanctuary wants to make sure she has what she needs at all times.

When asked to explain why, he struggled for words before simply saying, “She’s kind of endearing.”

Stewart, who lives in a prefabricated log house on the sanctuary, sees Toka almost every day. (Pat Derby, who co-founded PAWS with Stewart, died in 2013.)

He laughed as he remembered a story.

“One thing that Toka does if you’re doing training … and you give her some like, bananas that you make banana bread out of,” he said. “Give her one of those and she’ll suck on it for 10 minutes and fall asleep.”

He says they make sure they don’t give her a banana if they need her to respond when they’re trimming her feet or checking her teeth.

For that, they’ll offer her an orange, rubbing it on her tongue so that she keeps her mouth open.

“She always knows she’s going to get something good when you ask her to put her trunk up,” said Stewart. “She is delightful.”

Toka (far left), an African elephant from the Toronto Zoo, pictured with Maggie and Lulu at the Ark 2000 animal sanctuary run by PAWS in San Andreas, Ca.

On the day he was interviewed, Stewart said he saw Toka digging her own mudhole with her foot, picking the dirt up with her trunk and throwing it on her back.

But even though an elephant can do some things at the Ark that they would in the wild, he says the sanctuary cannot possibly create the same life the animals would have there.

Elephants in captivity exhibit stereotypic behaviour, such as rocking their heads back and forth or up and down because there’s nothing to do, says Stewart.

Toka did quite a bit of that when she arrived at the sanctuary and still does it occasionally, although he says she looks very comfortable when she is out in her group.

Elephants “have this complex social group. They’re always moving, always thinking,” he said. “They have massive brains. They have tremendous organization and they have a job. They have an occupation.

“In captivity, they’re unemployed, so you try to do something for them to make them feel like they do have a job,” he said. “You can fill a ball with peanuts and roll it in. And then they eat the peanuts and you fill the ball again. You roll it in.”

“At a certain point you have to admit that something’s wrong with the picture. If it was an adequate place for animals to live, you wouldn’t have to shake a rattle in their face all day long just to pass the time.”

Stewart says that when it comes to elephants, it’s not about whether a sanctuary is better than a zoo, which he says often frames the argument whenever controversy arises over the death of an elephant in captivity.

“We’re pretty practical. When an elephant dies in a zoo somewhere — Toronto had three or four go right in succession — that’s the way it goes,” he said. “That’s captivity. That’s not because you didn’t try to do your best.

“The more you know about elephants in captivity, the more of a fan you are to keep ‘em in the wild.”

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