Friday, May 13, 2011

No more elephants at the Toronto Zoo

After a lengthy debate, the Toronto Zoo board has voted to shut down the zoo's elephant exhibit.

I have mixed feelings about the decision. The kid in me says, 'This sucks!', but every time I have gone to the zoo and seen that exhibit, my conscience has nagged at me -- the elephant space has always struck me as being far too small for such massive creatures. It seemed obvious that we were keeping them in an enclosure that was inappropriate and likely debilitating.

Will we forget the elephants? Will they forget us?

I'm torn, because viewing these magnificent creatures in the flesh is immensely valuable for broadening the experience of stay-at-home urbanites like myself -- it is a profound reminder of the wider, greater natural world that exists beyond the artificiality of our cities. Without exposure to these wild animals we risk losing an appreciation for our place in the ecosystem, and becoming distanced from nature and the environment.

There was mounting evidence that the elephant exhibit, in its present form, was unsustainable and harmful. There are only three elephants left -- our 'herd' isn't large enough to be called such anymore -- and in the last five years, four elephants have died. Pretty damning numbers.The elephants have also shown signs of psychological distress and aberrant behaviours.

Does the welfare of the elephants outweigh the educational value of their presence? In our western culture, zoos were initially influenced and inspired by the pervasive idea of man's 'dominion [...] over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.' (Gen. 1-26). Man's role in this Christian perspective is to subdue nature, not submit to it. Animals are our subjects, not our peers. Zoos were created for our entertainment and titillation. The health of the animals was never a concern, except as an operational issue. Over time, concerns about animal welfare and growing ecological awareness has shifted the emphasis of zoos towards conservancy and education, but the essential tension remains -- is it ethically acceptable to take an animal from its natural place, and exhibit it for our pleasure and edification?

In the end, I have to reluctantly support the decision as being the best thing. The elephants -- and I'd argue some of the larger primates as well -- fall into that grey area where sufficient intelligence is present such that suffering is a result of our keeping them captive. They are 'conscious' of their surroundings and seem resigned to their fate. It is our responsibility to mitigate that suffering as best we can and not exacerbate their condition.

There is still plenty of time to see the pachyderms at the zoo -- determining the ultimate destination for the elephants is expected to take up to a couple of years. It's a sad decision for the zoo, but one that reflects the gradual change in our philosophical outlook on animals.

UPDATE -- October 26, 2011 
City Council Votes to Send Elephants Away

Update 2—October 17, 2013 (!)
A Pair of Wistful Farewells