TORONTO - The Toronto Zoo board did plenty of trumpeting Tuesday over delays in moving their three African elephants to a California sanctuary.
City council voted to send Toka, Thika, and Iringa to PAWS (Performing Animals Welfare Society) in a surprise vote last October. A warmer climate is said to be more appropriate for the equatorial mammals.
Now Toronto Zoo CEO John Tracogna says while technical factors include import permits, air carrier issues and crate sizes, an important factor is the "biosecurity of the PAWS facility."
The zoo's senior veterinarian, Dr. Graham Crawshaw, is concerned about the risk of tuberculosis at PAWS. He says zoo staff were prevented from seeing some facilities on a site visit last year, where he says they also observed PAWS staffers wearing masks, indicating a quarantine.
"When we arrived, we were not allowed to see several areas of the facility," he said. "In fact, we just saw two of the five elephant barns."
He said animals at PAWS have died of tuberculosis in the last year and a half, raising his concerns over the future health of Toronto's three aging elephants, should they be sent there.
"We certainly do not wish to put our animals at risk of developing a significant infectious disease," Crawshaw said.
ZooCheck Canada spokeswoman Julie Woodyer said the vet's concerns are unfounded.
"I'm not aware that they were restricted from anything," she said. "And they certainly were not restricted in the amount of time they could look at [medical] records."
According to her, there was no active tuberculosis until earlier this year.
"The minute we found the active TB case, we reported it to the zoo," she said.
She firmly believes PAWS is the "safest possible facility" for Toronto's animals.
"This facility has been tried and tested on disease control," she said.
Tuesday's meeting led city councillor Josh Colle to note the issue was now caught between two "dogmatic" camps.
"This is about due diligence," he said. "This is about animal welfare."
A motion passed Tuesday by the zoo's board directs the city's executive committee's attention to Crawshaw's report at their Oct. 9 meeting.
For the elephants to move stateside, Tracogna says permits must be in order. Toka's crate also requires modification, a pressurized air carrier needs to be arranged, and Crawshaw's questions over PAWS' health records must be answered.
Earlier this year, former Price is Right host Bob Barker offered to foot the $800,000 cost of moving the elephants.