Rest In Peace Jack, and May Your Legacy Live On. (Vancouver Aquarium)

Saddened by the news out of the Vancouver Aquarium that harbour porpoise Jack has passed away.

RIP Jack

Jack was found washed up on a beach in 2011, when he was about 5 weeks old. He was taken in to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for intensive care. Later deemed non-releasable by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (not by the aquarium itself, as is commonly believed in these cases), he was introduced to Daisy, another harbour porpoise who was found and saved under similar circumstances.

Together, these two animals became ambassadors for their species and reinforced in my mind the importance of zoos and aquariums. Although I have loved whales and dolphins since I was a child, porpoises never crossed my mind… until “meeting” Daisy for the first time. A new porpoise lover was created. And I’m not alone — I know countless people who came to love these animals only after watching the playful, interactive antics of Jack and Daisy at the aquarium.

Jack Face
Harbour porpoises are BC’s most abundant cetacean, and yet little is known about them (if anything, you are likely to catch only a fleeting glimpse of one’s back-end as it swims away). What the aquarium learned from caring for Jack and Daisy helped in the re-release of another porpoise named Levi, and will also help future animals in need.

RIP Jack. You will be missed by many, but your legacy will live on through people you inspired.

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Facility Spotlight: Monarto Zoo (South Australia)

 

Located in Monarto, South Australia, at 2,700 acres Montarto Zoo is the largest free-range zoo in the world. It is so large that the Adelaide Zoo (also operated by the non-profit Zoos SA) could fit inside the lion habitat with room to spare. They are home to more than 500 animals of 50 species, and have several native Australian species utilising the grounds as well.

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A free-roaming emu near the cafe

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Shoutout to this hyena for providing a reference point as to just how large these habitats are

Quoting their website, Zoos SA exists “to save species from extinction and connect people with nature.” Not only do they support conservation efforts worldwide, they also run a number of successful breeding programs for several endangered species. This includes Mesopotamian Fallow Deer (nearly extinct in the wild), Yellow-Footed Rock Wallabies, and iconic chimpanzees. They are also home to the only breeding hyenas in the Australasian region.

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A snippet of the expansive chimpanzee habitat

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Lots of opportunity for exhibiting natural behaviours!

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Zuri, the second youngest of the resident chimpanzee troupe. That bald patch had regrown when I visited several months later.

To describe the staff, “passionate” is an understatement. They are friendly and overflowing with interesting information about the zoo and its animals. At times they are also refreshingly blunt, saying that instead of killing a rhino and consuming its horn, one may as well eat hair and tonail clippings from off the floor as it is effectively the same thing. Another remarked that the only way to save the rhino is if it is “removed from Africa”.

And indeed…there is an ambitious move to bring 80 Southern White Rhinos from Africa to Australia for the purpose of conservation. Monarto Zoo, putting their money where their mouth is, will house approximately half of them. The zoo is already home to 6, and have had 5 successful births.

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The zoo actively tries to reduce its ecological footprint, utilizing native plants to assist in reducing soil erosion and water consumption, and solar power is used for the fences and gates.

Monarto Zoo has extensive walking trails through the native bushland (and they run birdwatching walks from time to time), or you can travel around the zoo (and through the habitats!) on their network of buses. The buses make regular stops should people wish to visit the observation platforms and/or hear the various keeper talks.

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Outside the lion habitat. You don’t need to tell me twice!

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Lionesses coming in for a treat during a keeper talk

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The staff strive to dispel myths surrounding hyenas as being monsters, such as people assume from movies like The Lion King

There are a few downsides, which I mention so that you may get as much out of your visit to the zoo as possible: one is transportation. If you don’t have a car, busing IS possible but not ideal if you are on a budget and/or have children. The bus from Adelaide to Mount Barker costs less than $5, where you have a 1-hour layover until a LinkSA picks you up and drops you off over an hour after the zoo opens.  I suspect LinkSA charges an arm and a leg for this short hop simply because they can – about $24 round trip. They neglect to mention this on their site, and other routes appeared to cost less when I tried to find the fare in advance. If you have children, this adds up quickly, and that hour long layover likely won’t go over well.

Further, the nifty bus system around the zoo itself has potential to be problematic. When I visited on a weekday during the off-season it was great!  But accidentally going during school holidays (I imagine weekends are similar), we spent more time waiting for an available bus than looking at the animals. Be sure to bring ample water, as you may be stuck in the hot sun for a long time.

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One other moot point I’ll mention: photography can be difficult since many of your photos will be taken through the heavily tinted windows of a bumpy bus. I mention this because my friend became downright cranky at all the shots he lost out on.  While frustrating at times, there are still plenty of opportunities for good shots away from the buses, including of meerkats, yellow-footed rock wallabies, and chimpanzees, all of which are easily accessible by foot from the main hub (also a bonus in case the buses are full as mentioned above).

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Overall, Monarto is definitely worth a visit. They hit all the right marks, and you are bound to learn something interesting, or at the very least, be entertained watching the animals just be themselves in their massive habitats!  The chimpanzees were particularly fascinating.  Be sure to check this zoo out!

 

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.

Helen dolphin

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: Sea World Gold Coast (Australia)

Facility Spotlight: SeaWorld Gold Coast. (Queensland, Australia)

Visited: August of 2014.

To be clear, Sea World Gold Coast is not affiliated with the American SeaWorld, instead being operated by Village Roadshow. Although my friend had warned me that the place was “kind of bogan”, I was not prepared for how underwhelming it was. Simply put, it was the most boring place I have ever been that had dolphins.

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

But let’s focus on the high points first: The polar bear habitat, which is among the most technologically advanced in the world, was spacious with impressive landscaping and ample enrichment opportunities for the animals. They were swimming, jumping off the “cliffs”, and having what appeared to be a grand old time. Who would have thought that in Australia these threatened arctic animals could have such a good life? Kind of ironic when you consider climate change is killing them.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

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The dolphin habitats are spacious, sandy-bottomed, and fringed with a small beach for a naturalistic look. The park also makes an effort at being educational, with informative signs found throughout, and an interesting narrative during the dolphin show “Imagine” (since replaced with “Affinity”).

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Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Unfortunately, it seemed as though at least some of the dolphins were as bored as I was. While admiring the animals in the Dolphin Nursery, a couple brought their few toys over and placed them on the shore as close to my feet as they could. Having just visited the vastly superior SeaWorld San Diego, where the dolphins can freely interact with visitors as they choose, including having them throw toys, it was not difficult to guess what these fellows wanted.

It was then I realized that there was no staff around at all to answer visitors’ questions, give small scale educational talks, interact with the animals, or any combination thereof — something I frequently see in other facilities.  Eventually, someone did do a walk around the perimeter, which caught the dolphins’ attention, but he completely ignored them.

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Amity, an Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin

That said, at one point I did see some at a distance engaging in a training session, and the dolphins do seem to have a great relationship with their trainers, but being able to see more of this from a better vantage point would have been nice.  There are no underwater observation areas, either, which go a long way towards helping a person appreciate these amazing marine mammals.

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show "Affinity". Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show “Affinity”. Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

There was a lot of hype for the sea lion feeding, but as the feeding platform was at a distance from the main observation areas, anyone who hadn’t paid for the privilege quickly lost interest.

As for the sea lion show, “Fish Detectives”, it was remarkably similar to the clichéd “whodunit” story that was running at the unaffiliated SeaWorld San Antonio, right down to the animals’ names (one was named Claude instead of Clyde). Couldn’t they have come up with something more original?  Especially considering how cool sea lion naturally are…?  Honestly, I couldn’t even stay for the duration.

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“We’re much better than the shows make us look, I swear”

The small number of rides can only be described as lackluster. I wasn’t expecting something like Dreamworld, but SOMETHING to help kill the lengthy wait times between shows would have been nice. (Although interestingly enough Dreamworld has an excellent and much more interactive zoological area, and are one of the single largest contributors to tiger conservation).

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

I had intended to stay the whole day, but with overly spaced-out shows, absolutely nothing to do in-between, and with some of the animals looking just as bored as I felt, I left early feeling ripped off and far from inspired.  Several people have said I must have visited on a really bad day, and if I go back and have a good one, I will happily update as appropriate.  But as it is, with this being the only facility of its kind in Australia, it is unfortunate that if I didn’t already love marine life, Sea World Gold Coast would not have changed my mind.

Pass.

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.