The Fifth Estate looks at the uncertain future of elephants in zoos

Lucy the elephant is one enormous local media celebrity.

The old girl is going national again this Friday at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV as the star of The Fifth Estate episode “The Elephant in the Room” that takes a hard look at the “bitter fight over the future of elephants in zoos.”

The only thing that’s clear by the end of the show is that Bob Barker’s objection – Canada “ain’t no place for elephants,” he says at one point – is being rectified whether the decision makers like the former Price Is Right host and his fellow celebrity animal rights activists or not, because it’s really about money. It seems to have become prohibitively expensive to build elephant habitats up to current standards, at least in Canada.

Calgary won’t be keeping elephants anymore. Toronto is shipping off the three they have, though they’re still arguing about where to send them. And Lucy is staying where she is – moving her could be fatal due to a respiratory issue, according to Edmonton Valley Zoo veterinarian Milton Ness. When she’s gone, Edmonton will be pachyderm-free.

“Could Canada’s elephants be the beginning of the end for the world’s zoos?” asks Fifth Estate investigative reporter Bob McKeown at the top of the program.

Ness is one of a number of subjects interviewed for the piece, which also includes noted zoo architect David Hancocks, who takes a dim view of the way elephants are treated in many modern zoos. He says, “They’re so desperate to hold onto elephants, it’s like this is a prized possession, that I think maybe that they can’t see the truth.”

Lucy paints with the help of artist Tim Rechner in this June 2011 photo by Fish Griwkowsky

Viewers will be shown that elephants, being social animals, do best when they’re in a group, in a warm climate, that their bodies are designed to walk for long distances on soft ground and smash up trees. The Fifth Estate crew spends a lot of time at the PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) preserve in California – Bob Barker’s sanctuary of choice. It was there that Maggie, a lone African elephant from a zoo in Anchorage, Alaska, was shipped via enormous US military cargo plane, and seems to be doing well in a group of females that are allowed to walk for long distances on soft ground and smash up trees.

So why not Lucy? Dr. Ness is pressed on the fact that his diagnosis of Lucy’s breathing problem was corroborated by American elephant expert Dr. James Oosterhuis, who was the only veterinarian among several to recommend that Maggie not be moved from Anchorage. Ness responds that Oosterhuis wasn’t the only expert consulted about Lucy who agreed the stress of moving the 37-year-old Indian elephant might kill her. Oosterhuis declined The Fifth Estate’s request for an interview.

As for the Toronto elephants, because Toronto City Council voted to send its zoo’s elephants to PAWS, and because PAWS is not an accredited zoo, the Toronto Zoo’s accreditation was revoked by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The council has since been rethinking the decision, and there’s a bit of trouble over it (the Fifth Estate piece was already done before recent events). There is also an allegation of tuberculosis among the elephants at the PAWS sanctuary, which PAWS director Ed Stewart denies.

The Toronto Star has a detailed article about the city’s elephant quagmire. In short, Lucy may be alone, but Edmonton is not.

“Elephant in the Room” doesn’t add much new to the elephant debate, to the idea that older zoo elephants should be allowed to “retire,” but it should keep emotions running high on an issue where there isn’t much common ground. It’s the zoo people vs. the animal rights activists – and people are angry.

Money may be the equalizer. While painted as opposing forces on two sides of an intractable argument, Dr. Ness actually agrees with Bob Barker – that it’s a good idea there be no more elephants at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. In a recent GigCity interview, Ness maintains that it’s “possible” to keep elephants here, and in other zoos in cold climates, but that it would be very expensive.

“Elephants are animals that require a tremendous amount of infrastructure to support properly,” he says, “and the bottom line is that when you look at animal welfare and management across the board, things have changed. We’ve come to know that we have to do more than we have been doing, and that requires tremendous investment.”

Why even have zoos at all? Speaking to the positive benefit of zoos, “philosophically,” Ness says that zoo animals have a very important job – teach the public about themselves. He states what he calls the core value of zoos around the world, which has been so since it was set down at a conference in 1968: “In the end we’re only going to save what we love, and we only love what we know, and we only know what we’re taught.”

There is, Ness adds, no replacement for seeing a real live elephant before your eyes, “You’re not going to know what an elephant really is unless you can get as close as you can to Lucy, to understand an elephant, the wonder of it all. You have to do it right, though.”