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Three Elephants Head from Zoo to 80-Acre Sanctuary

A specialist in animal psychology sees the decision as evidence of progress in understanding between species.
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71 and Mara, two elephants who live at the PAWS sanctuary. Photo courtesy

On October 20, three female African elephants—Toka, Thika and Iringa—made the journey from Canada to California after the closing of their exhibit at the Toronto Zoo.

The elephants will not be displayed again, but will live out their lives at the Ark 2000 Sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. The sanctuary is operated by the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a nonprofit that allows abused, abandoned, or retired performing animals to live "in peace and dignity."

When an elephant trumpets, or an orca calls out, we can understand the expression of emotion.

After public outcry and petitioning, the Toronto Zoo Board made the decision to close the exhibit in March 2011. That October, the Toronto City Council voted to move the elephants to the PAWS Sanctuary. Two years of deliberation later, the elephants have been moved from their 2-acre paddock to their new home. The sanctuary has dedicated 80 acres of rolling California hills to the African elephants.

Toka, Thika, and Iringa have joined the sanctuary's resident African elephants Mara, Maggie, and Lulu. The six greeted one another with a range of distinctive vocalizations, according to Kim Gardner of PAWS. Gardner says that the ultimate goal is for them to become a family but that may take months or longer, since "elephant time" is substantially slower than what humans are used to.

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After the move of Toka, Thika, and Iringa, about 600 elephants remain in captivity in North America.

"Zoo captivity is an untenable situation," says Dr. Lori Marino, founder and executive director at the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and senior lecturer at Emory University. "There is a fundamental incompatibility between captivity and natural behavior, even if intentions are good."

While the fact that animals cannot use human language has been a factor in our willingness to keep them captive, Marino points out that cross-species communication plays a role in the growing awareness about this issue. She breaks communication down into two categories: emotion and content.

"Humans share emotional expression with other species, even if we haven't translated the content," she says. "When an elephant trumpets, or an orca calls out, we can understand the expression of emotion. We may not be able to think like another species, but as a mother, as a sibling, as a child, we share emotions of grief, love, hunger, fear and so on."

Cynthia DanielCynthia Daniel wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Cynthia is an education intern at YES!

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