Animal Rescue, Daisy the Harbour Porpoise, and Saving the Vaquita In Her Name

Even before the sad news of 9-year old Daisy the Harbour Porpoise’s death, this couldn’t be stated enough: “Every animal matters.”

No, that isn’t the mantra of an animal rights group like PETA (who kill 97% of the animals taken into their “care”), but the oft-repeated sentiment of the Vancouver Aquarium and their supporters as the Park Board voted to ban all new cetaceans from entering the aquarium.

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Daisy (bottom) and Jack

This decision means that animals like porpoises Daisy and Jack, and false killer whale Chester, all of whom were found washed up on beaches at about 1 month of age, will now have to be “euthanised” on the spot instead of being taken to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre and given a chance at life. The aquarium must be able to provide a long-term home to animals deemed non-releasable by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.  As the only facility of its kind in Canada, that ability has been lost.

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Baby Daisy. Credit: Vancouver Aquarium

Clearly, these animals do NOT matter to the Park Board, who have been asked countless times if the “experts” they claimed to consult included the DFO. Their silence could seen as an answer in itself. A so-called humane society was among the many who praised the ban while implying it doesn’t matter because (paraphrasing collective statements from them and others) “not that many cetaceans are treated at the MMRC anyway”. But the number is irrelevant: these animals matter. All of them.

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This figure ignores attempted rescues and all other strandings. Only those who survive long enough to enter long-term treatment are “counted.”

Daisy was an ambassador to her species in every sense of the word. What her caregivers learned from her directly contributed to the successful re-release of Levi. And then there are those she inspired: she stole the hearts of myself and countless others, and we love with the often-overlooked porpoise family as a direct result of interacting with her. Some of us are now taking action to save the critically endangered vaquita as part of that newfound love. Even Daisy contributed to vaquita conservation efforts.

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The day I fell in love with porpoises

Returning animals like Daisy to the wild is always the goal, but it isn’t always possible.  For those who call facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium home, while their lives may be different to that of their wild counterparts, that does not make them any less meaningful. Their trainers and tankmates are their friends and family. They have toys, affection, better medical care than many humans receive, and they never go hungry.  They even participate in research that can improve the lives of their increasingly imperiled wild counterparts, and increase the likelihood of successful rehabilitations.

The people at the Vancouver Aquarium are the true activists, knowing all the animals who have a chance at life deserve that life…and working to make it happen. Every one that needs to be shot on the beach because of this shortsighted law is one too many. Please, as the Vancouver Aquarium fights the ban in court, continue to let the Park Board know you oppose their decision.

And then, please help save the vaquita. For those Daisy touched, fighting to save the vaquita in her name is perhaps one of the best ways we can honour her memory.  For without her we might not care in the first place.

Rest in peace, sweet Daisy.  May your memory live on through those you inspired.

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Further reading:
Porpoise Conservation Society

Euthanasia, Humane Killing, and the Vancouver Aquarium

 

Euthanasia, Humane Killing, and the Vancouver Aquarium

Vancouver’s Park Board is looking to completely end the display of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium. That includes rescued and rehabilitated animals like harbour porpoise Daisy and false killer whale Chester.  Both were found beached and near death as infants, and were taken into care at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre (which, incidentally, is the only one of its kind in Canada).  The government later deemed them non-releasable.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

Chester leaping before a show

While animal rights activists celebrate, scientists warn bans like this could do more harm than good.   Among other things, if the Vancouver Aquarium is no longer able to provide a permanent home for cetaceans who are deemed non-releasable, “…the DFO would have to look at alternatives such as euthanasia,” according to Dr John Ford of the Department of Fisheries.

But is euthanasia the correct term?  In a research environment (where much of my training lies), the distinction between Euthanasia and something referred to as Humane Killing (or Culling) is roughly as follows: Euthanasia is undertaken for the animal’s benefit, usually to end explicit suffering.  Humane Killing is undertaken for our benefit and convenience, such as when an animal is no longer needed for breeding.  Both are conducted as fast and painlessly as possible — it is merely the motive that differs.

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Helen was found entangled in a fishing net off the coast of Japan, and was deemed non-releasable following a lengthy rehabilitation. Her pectoral fins had to be partially amputated.

But who benefits from stripping current animals of their home and leaving future ones to die? Politicians. In this case, the Vancouver Park Board.

As election time approached in 2014, Vision Vancouver-run Park Board Commissioner Constance Barnes infamously compared cetacean captivity to slavery before banning breeding.  Vision Vancouver lost the Park Board that election, and the Aquarium-supporting NPA immediately reversed Vision’s rulings, stating “I think it’s an emotional issue, and I think we recognize that the aquarium provides a lot of good in terms of research, conservation and education programs and we want to see that work continue.”  But election time is coming up again, and Commissioner Stuart Mackinnin used renewed outrage following the deaths of belugas Qila and Aurora to do a fast 180 and one-up scrapping the breeding program by moving to ban cetaceans entirely.  He even suggested he doesn’t care where the animals go so long as they’re off Park Board-controlled lands. Out of sight, out of mind…and into office.

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One has to wonder…

Activists claim the animals are suffering in captivity, but science says otherwise.  And there are tangible benefits to having cetaceans live in facilities such as the Vancouver Aquarium that directly benefit their wild counterparts.  Helen, for example, participates in research studies that could help prevent the approximately 1000 marine mammals from becoming entangled in fishing nets as bycatch every day.  Meanwhile, Daisy is helping save the critically endangered Vaquita. Not to mention, animals are given a chance at life who otherwise wouldn’t have one.  And if all cetaceans are “euthanised” on the spot to “save” the few who can’t be, success stories like Levi’s will be a thing of the past.  (see: This Dolphin Didn’t Have To Die)

The Vancouver Aquarium is asking people to send letters of support for the work they do.  And voice that support for them on social media, perhaps highlighting how they have inspired you.

To the politicians, this isn’t about the animals’ welfare.  It’s about notoriety and votes.  Don’t let them meddle in the lives of these animals purely for their own gain.  The future of cetacean conservation and rescue in Canada could depend on it.

Related:
Remembering Qila and Aurora Through Those They Inspired
Rest In Peace Jack, and May Your Legacy Live On

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Anthropomorphism, And How Animal Rights Activists Are Born

While observing the critically endangered Sumatran Tigers at the Toronto Zoo (reviewed here), I heard about a half dozen visitors independently exclaim how “it’s sad that the tigers are by themselves” and how they must feel “lonely”.

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This is anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a something non-human. Or, as Josh Clark puts it:Anthropomorphizing is the point at which human curiosity meets human laziness…It’s a lot easier to explain a prancing goat as being ‘happy’ than it is to study the behavior further and determine that the dance is part of a mating ritual.” Basically, the speakers felt that they would be lonely if they lived by themselves, and so the tigers must surely be lonely too.

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The problem is, this is how zoo-hating animal rights activists are born: the uneducated acting on sudden emotion, and screaming “foul!” or “abuse!” as they assume the animals are not being properly cared for because they, personally, don’t like (or more accurately, don’t understand) what they see.

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The reality is that tigers are naturally territorial and solitary creatures, generally only coming together during the mating season. And even then, this can still lead to one animal mauling another. It is not uncommon for zoos to keep their tigers apart except for the purposes of mating (often as part of a species protection program), and even that isn’t always foolproof.

Animal behaviour is complex, and what works for one species doesn’t necessarily work for another.  Even individuals within a population may exhibit traits which may seem “abnormal”, but are in fact normal to that individual.  The average zoo visitor averages less than 1 minute at each exhibit, while the animals’ carers dedicate their lives towards the animals’ wellbeing.  The keys are education, observation, and more education (no, reading The Dodo doesn’t count).  If you have questions or concerns, the zookeepers (or other zoo staff or volunteers) will most likely be happy to answer them — after all, they arguably know the individual animals best.  To assume the worst could harm the animals themselves, and even set back conservation efforts.

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Remembering Qila and Aurora Through Those They Inspired (Vancouver Aquarium)

November 26: 2016 Original blog post from 2 days ago has been amended to reflect updated events.

After the recent loss of Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium (who in some ways I watched grow up alongside my evolving view of belugas from “boring” to “beautiful”), shortly followed by the news that her mother Aurora passed from the same illness following heroic efforts to save her, I was reminded of a Skytrain ride conversation I overheard in which someone had clearly been inspired by these two animals.

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A very young Qila with her mother, Aurora

On this commute a small child was gushing to his grandfather about beluga whales. How cool they are, how their home is melting, how pollution makes them “poisonous” (toxic), how he’s going to write about belugas for school and tell his classmates, and how he wants to raise money to help them. His grandfather smiled and asked if he knew the Vancouver Aquarium had beluga whales. “YEAH!!! Auntie took me! That’s how I know this!” and on and on he went.  If he paused to take a breath, I would be surprised.

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Qila breaching. Photo available here, here, and here.

Qila and Aurora played a direct role in inspiring the child above. Although many people do visit zoos and aquariums to be entertained, connecting with these animal ambassadors provides a tactile experience that can touch both mind and heart in ways books and television often can’t.

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And for those who aren’t inspired, the money they spend on admission, food, and souvenirs still helps fund conservation and research projects, of which the Vancouver Aquarium has many.

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Up close with Aurora

So like Jack the Harbour Porpoise, may Qila and Aurora live on through those they touched and inspired, and the wild belugas whose lives may be saved as a result.  They will without doubt be dearly missed by their dedicated carers, and aquarium visitors as well.

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Facility Spotlight: Vancouver Aquarium

With a strong focus on research and conservation, the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, first opened its doors in 1956, and have become a progressive and excellent example of which other facilities should aspire to be (or be more like, as different facilities satisfy different niches and/or learning styles). For example, in 1996 they became the first facility to pledge to no longer collect marine mammals from the wild, and other facilities quickly followed.

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

The Vancouver Aquarium was also the first facility to, effectively, display a killer whale. Although it was far from an ideal situation as the animal was harpooned for the purpose of being used to create a lifesize model, Moby Doll (as she came to be known) changed the way people viewed this highly misunderstood marine mammal, and we stopped using the species for target practice.

Bill Reid's "Chief of the Undersea World" greets aquarium visitors

Bill Reid’s “Chief of the Undersea World” greets aquarium visitors

Split into several different galleries, including Canada’s Arctic, the Tropic Zone (highlighting the Amazon), Penguin Point, and Treasures of the BC Coast (among others), the Vancouver Aquarium provides a glimpse of the natural world from around the globe.

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An African Penguin at Penguin Point

An African Penguin at Penguin Point

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Home to the only marine mammal rescue centre in Canada (Marineland, who are much closer to a threatened population of beluga whales in the St Lawrence, does not operate one), the Vancouver Aquarium rescues, rehabilitates, and often re-releases around 100 animals each year. Primarily seals, they have also saved otters, sea lions, harbour porpoises, a false killer whale, and even sea turtles who were found far from their preferred tropical climes.  Some of the animals were later deemed non-releaseable by the appropriate government authorities, and the aquarium was able to provide them with a permanent home.

Following her rehabilitation in the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, the Vancouver Aquarium was granted special permission to permanently house Schoona after she was deemed non-releasable

The Vancouver Aquarium was granted special permission to permanently house Schoona after she was deemed non-releasable

The “Frogs Forever?” gallery, which spawned the famous ad and internet response below, highlights the global plight of the world’s amphibians, whose numbers are crashing due to pollution, habitat loss, and the spread of chytrid fungus.  Zoological facilities around the world are working to create a modern-day network of arks for the world’s imperiled amphibians, and the Vancouver Aquarium was the first to breed the Northern Leopard Frog.

Save The Frogs

"Unavailable Due To Extinction"

“Unavailable Due To Extinction”

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The aquarium is also home to some animals you wouldn’t expect to see in such a facility, such as macaws, sloths, marmosets, and fruit bats. This helps create a balanced impression of how everything is interconnected.

A Jamaican Fruit Bat in the Amazon gallery.

A Jamaican Fruit Bat in the Amazon gallery.

Hurricane the sloth

Hurricane the sloth

The Vancouver Aquarium is home to the only two captive Harbour Porpoises in North America, both of whom were found washed up on beaches in poor condition at about 1 month old, and had a very low chance of survival (Daisy in 2008, Jack in 2011). Volunteers at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre worked around the clock to save them, using purpose-built slings to help them float (and breathe). The two were recently moved into the beluga habitat, which has given them more room to exhibit natural behaviours, such as this side-by-side swimming recorded days after the move in January.

Harbour Porpoises are BC’s most abundant cetaceans, yet very little is known about them. As such, Jack and Daisy not only serve as excellent ambassadors for their species (I know tons of people who now love porpoises!), but are also helping scientists understand them better. In 2013, a porpoise named Levi was successfully rescued and re-released, in part due to what was learned from working with Jack and Daisy.

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The many shows and talks are educational in nature, focusing on husbandry procedures (which, inevitably, showcases the bond between the animals and their trainers), the plight of the animals’ wild counterparts, and stories of the often-rescued animals themselves. For example, how Pacific White-Sided Dolphin Helen was found entangled in a fishing net off the coast of Japan (no, NOT Taiji!) and had to have her pectoral fins partially removed.

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Chester and Hellen

Chester and Helen

The aquarium also has special programming throughout the year, such as Divers Weekend as seen below.  Other examples include “After Hours” adults-only nights, and the always-popular appearances from Scuba Stanta at Christmas.  Darth Vader even made a special appearance once during “Sea Star Wars”.

In 2015, the aquarium performed groundbreaking surgery on a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin named Hana. It was kind of an “all bets are off” situation as she would not have otherwise recovered. Although Hana sadly did not survive her illness, what veterinarians learned may help save other animals in the future.

Hana

Hana

The Vancouver Aquarium conducts research into why Stellar Sea Lion populations have plummeted.  This includes measuring the metabolism of trained sea lions based at an open water research site, and examining sea lion poop.  They discovered that sea lions are increasingly eating lower-nutrient fish as higher-energy fish stocks are depleted.

Ashbee, a Stellar Sea Lion

Ashbee, a Stellar Sea Lion

While visiting the Toronto Zoo, I learned that their polar bear cub was being fed formula that the Vancouver Aquarium helped develop due to their expertise and extensive research involving various arctic animals.  Reputable facilities often work together and share information for the greater good.

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

Up-close with Aurora, a beluga whale.  The Vancouver Aquarium has been involved in extensive research on this threatened species.

Throughout my life I have heard of the aquarium wanting to expand its habitats, but the same activists who scream that they are “too small” and “inhumane” are the same ones who block the aquarium’s efforts to improve at every turn (much like happened with Blue World Project at SeaWorld recently). Which is it?

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Oh, wait, I know… When Chester the false killer whale was found washed up on a beach in Tofino, animal rights activists were calling for his death as it was “more humane” than a second chance at life. Would they say the same thing about a car accident victim who was certain to never walk again? Frankly, having seen Chester in the flesh, I think he is doing just fine.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

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So all in all the Vancouver Aquarium is an excellent facility all-around, despite what they naysayers (who often have not even visited them) arbitrarily nitpick.  It is the place this prairie-raised animal-tech student learned to appreciate the aquatic world, which always seemed to out of reach.  Give them a visit, and you will certainly learn something new about our natural world too.

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Facility Spotlight: Bloedel Conservatory (Vancouver, BC)

Vancouver’s Bloedel Floral Conservatory, nestled deep in the heart of Queen Elizabeth Park, opened its doors in 1969. Originally containing just plants, over the years the conservatory has become home to over 200 free-flying birds of various species (at least some of which come from Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary).   Admission is nominal ($6.75 at the time of writing).

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In 2009, Bloedel Conservatory was in jeopardy after the city voted to close one of the few decent tourist attractions (not to mention an excellent place to connect with some gorgeous birds) in what has already come to be known as a “No Fun City”. Set to close following the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics, supporters of the conservatory lobbied in support of this jewel, attendance rose, and enough money was raised that the city reversed its decision. It is now run as a joint project by the Friends of the Bloedel Association and VanDusen Botanical Garden Association.

Clyde, a hybrid Eastern x Crimson Rosella who lived in a small cage for 12 years and is happy to fly free at the conservatory!

The moment you enter, between the birdsong, tropical humidity, and the intoxicating scents of all the plants, you can’t help but feel as though you have entered another world.  Seasonally, they mix things up a bit, such as by decking the conservatory out with lights at Christmas, so there is always something new to see.

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The birds themselves seem to be very well cared for. Many interact with visitors to some extent, and they often exhibit natural behaviours such as nest-building.

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Rudy, an African Grey

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Art, a Blue and Gold Macaw

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The Conservatory provides species ID charts (and scavenger hunt sheets), so you always know what you’re looking at.

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Botanically, the Conservatory features over 500 plants throughout its 3 main habitats: tropical rainforest, subtropical rainforest, and desert.  The birds move freely between these.

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Gidget, a Citron-Crested Cockatoo. She is quite a ham!

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The surrounding park and gardens are well worth a walk through, offering spectacular views of the North Shore mountains…when they’re not enshrouded in clouds!

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If you can’t see the North Shore mountains it is raining. If you can see them, it is going to rain.

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With its incredibly fair admission price, vibrant birds, and exotic plants (not to mention the amazing scents emanating from them!), a visit to Bloedel Conservatory is highly recommended.  And if you happen to be a photographer, you’d be a fool not to!

Just be sure to visit on a slow day!

Just be sure to visit on a slow day!

Facility Spotlight: Toronto Zoo

The Toronto Zoo, which was born out of the old Riverdale Zoo and officially opened as a new venture in 1974, is Canada’s largest zoo. It is currently home to over 5000 animals from over 450 species.

The Toronto Zoo is incredibly active in global conservation efforts, which includes the breeding of endangered species – most notably they were the first zoo to champion the captive breeding of Black Footed Ferrets, with the intent of re-releasing them into Saskatchewan where they were extinct in the wild. Evidence of their various conservation efforts can be found throughout the zoo in well-marked signs and exhibits.

A window into The Toronto Zoo's conservation efforts

Global amphibian populations are in peril from pollution, habitat loss, and chytrid fungus.

Panamanian Golden Frogs are believed to be extinct in the wild.

Panamanian Golden Frogs are believed to be extinct in the wild.  Zoos serve as an ark to this species with the hope they can be re-introduced to the wild someday.

The first Burmese Star Tortoise born in captivity

The Burmese Star Tortoise is a critically endangered species now being bred in Canada by the Toronto Zoo

In general the habitats themselves are spacious, attempt to be naturalistic, and have ample enrichment opportunities. The zoo has signage highlighting different kids of enrichment that they provide for the animals, as well as (most importantly) information about their natural habitats and the threats they face in the wild.

I do think they could have worded this a bit better, however

I do think they could have worded this a bit better, however

Things do not look good for the Javan Rhinoceros

Things do not look good for the Javan Rhinoceros

And perhaps someone needs to inform the zoo that whales live in water ;)

Although, perhaps someone needs to inform the zoo that whales live in water 😉

Notable highlights are the snow leopards and cheetahs. Toronto Zoo is the only facility I have visited where these beautiful cats have been up and active, and indeed it was through visiting this specific zoo that I was able to gain an enhanced appreciation for them.

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Predator-s-Gaze-584551406?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Predator-s-Gaze-584551406?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Kota-583139314?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Kota-583139314?purchase=print

And any zoo that has lemurs automatically scores points IMHO

And any zoo that has lemurs automatically scores points IMHO

The orangutans have been another highlight over the years.  Although Adelaide Zoo’s (review coming soon!) orangutan habitat is the most naturalistic and aesthetically pleasing, the orangutans at the Toronto Zoo always seem to be getting up to something.  I vividly remember the first time I saw this species — which happened to be at this zoo — when I was perhaps 10.  My dad pointed out their various behaviours while comparing them to humans.  More accurately, to teenagers as one chillaxed on a raised platform while throwing food scraps to the ground.  A few years ago I saw a young one having a ball as he ran around the habitat with a burlap sack over his head.

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There were two of them playing in this tub, each poking their heads out briefly before throwing a tarp back over themselves.

There were two playing in this tub, each poking their heads out briefly before throwing a tarp back over themselves.

In November 2015 one of the Toronto Zoo’s polar bears gave birth. One cub died, and the other had to be taken into human care when it was discovered that the mother not producing milk. Apparently, the Vancouver Aquarium assisted in developing a special formula based on their expertise with seals and other Arctic species. Different facilities have their different strengths, and reputable ones work together sharing information for the greater good.

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Toronto Zoo FNF polar bear habitat

The downside of having visited in winter was a number of exhibits and all the eating establishments with the exception of an express Tim Hortons (where you can get drinks and little else) were closed, and outside of scheduled keeper talks there were no staff on hand to answer any questions one might have. I am told the zoo is a completely different place in the on-season. For a zoo to be as enjoyable and educational visit as it was in the off-season speaks volumes about the facility, and so the zoo itself was well worth a visit at any time of the year.

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Da Mao seems to approve of the zoo, too!

Da Mao seems to approve of the zoo, too!

 

A side-note on The Toronto Zoo’s elephants.

The Toronto Zoo recently made headlines over the death of a critically endangered African elephant named Iringa.  Prior to the transfer, the treatment of the elephants at the zoo… well, changes depending on who you ask.  But they had been planning to upgrade the habitat.  Animal Rights activists – who have been increasingly targeting any facility with elephants — had lobbied the City of Toronto to have the zoo’s elephants removed, citing unsuitable housing among their many standard complaints.  The city bowed to the activists.  Toronto Zoo staff insisted that the animals should be sent to another zoo with the expertise to care for them, but activists hate all zoos and instead the elephants were sent to PAWS Sanctuary, despite their questionable reputation. As a result, the Toronto Zoo lost its AZA accreditation, and the elephants’ condition quickly deteriorated due to lack of proper care.

Recently, the animals at PAWS were in danger of being killed by wildfire. Due to the facility’s lack of equipment and expertise in proper husbandry procedures, they were unable to get them out (and didn’t seem to be too interested in doing so anyway), and stubbornly refused all outside help. Luckily, none of the animals perished…this time.

It is a sad fact that animal rights activists want to cut off all connections to animals such as elephants.  And they won’t stop there — there is no telling which iconic yet imperiled species will be next.  With wild elephant numbers plummeting ever lower due to poaching, we should be encouraging more people to connect with this species, not taking away one of the best resources of doing so that we have.

Where the Toronto Zoo's elephants once roamed.

Where the Toronto Zoo’s elephant family once roamed.