The Globe and Mail, Monday, June 15, 1998, page A2

 

WHY THE ELEPHANT NEEDED A VACATION
By Shawn Blore


Tina was bored and 450 kilograms overweight so the zoo told her to pack her trunk


TINA the elephant went for a holiday last week. No one came out to protest In Vancouver, that's remarkable.

Rarely have animal-rights activists on the eco-conscious West Coast passed up an opportunity to point out what they see as the basic immorality of keeping wild animals in captivity. Largely as a result of their protests, Vancouver residents voted in a 1993 referendum to close down the Stanley Park Zoo. Civic politicians came within a tail fluke of doing the same to the Vancouver Aquarium's whale exhibits in 1997, relenting only when the Aquarium agreed not to take any more whales from the wild.

At last week's press conference at the Greater Vancouver Zoological Centre, however, protesters were nowhere to be seen. instead, eyes and shutters were all focused on Tina, the zoo's 28-year-old Asian elephant, as she posed beside a suitcase stuffed with peanuts. The activists' failure to show up was probably due less to distance - the zoo is located about an hour's drive east of Vancouver, amid the farmland of the Fraser Valley - than to the efforts of the zoo's new director, veterinarian Ken Macquisten.

"I'm kind of on probation with the animal-rights movement right now," said Dr. Macquisten, dodging a friendly swipe of the trunk from the zoo's other elephant, a 25-year-old African named Tempe. Since taking charge in January, Dr. Macquisten has announced plans to upgrade many of the zoo's aging enclosures.

"I don't want people coming out feeling sorry for these animals any more," Dr. Macquisten said. "I want people to come out saying, 'Well, we may not agree with animals in captivity, but if they do have to be in captivity this is the place we want them to be.'"

If animal-rights groups haven't exactly endorsed the changes, they have agreed to hold their fire for the moment.

"At least the animals will have the benefit with Macquisten that he does thoroughly research how animals live in their natural home and try to reproduce that in the captive situation," said Peter Hamilton, director of the animal-rights group Lifeforce.

Indeed, one of Dr.Macquisten's first acts as director was to bring in Alan Roocroft, a San Diego-based elephant-care specialist, to have a look at the two pachyderms. Mr. Roocroft reported that they were bored, and in Tina's case, a little overweight - if you can call 450 kilograms a "little."

Mr. Roocroft prescribed a diet high in fibre to help bring down Tina's weight. Fixing the boredom was a trickier problem.

"Keeping the animal entertained is absolutely critical," Mr. Roocroft said at the press conference. "Over time they become bored and then they become listless. If it goes on long enough, these animals can literally be bored to death."

To help alleviate the tedium, Dr. Macquisten made some minor changes to the elephants' routine, tossing apples and other goodies into their pen at different times of the day, and seeing to it that they had more interaction with the trainers.

The basic problem, however, was the pen itself. There's only so much that can be done to liven up a 30-by-50-metre patch of bare dirt.

Then someone had the idea of taking Tina for a holiday. One of the zoo workers had a 6.4 hectare hobby farm and no real aversion to taking in a four-tonne guest. An electric fence was installed, a truck located and, as a half-dozen TV cameras and a score of photographers looked on, Tina eased herself slowly into the back of an elephant-ready semi-trailer and set off for a 10-day rest in the countryside.

When the truck had disappeared from view, Dr. Macquisten turned and began explaining his long-term plans for a new and larger elephant habitat.

The design is done, he said, but with a price tag of $500,000, it will be at least a year before it is built. Al ready this year the zoo has spent more than $150,000 on a new, four hectare habitat for bears and wolves, and an adjoining six-hectare habitat for bison, elk and pronghorn.

Visitors to these exhibits, and the eventual elephant exhibit, will be taken in on 24-person mini-buses, in the company of a guide who can help explain the significance of what they're seeing.

"What we want to do is create the wow," said Dr. Macquisten. "While they're captive in the minibus we want to tell them all about the animal, give them an intimate experience with the elephant. That way if they later hear about poachers for example, their first reaction will be 'No. You can't do that.' The aquarium did that very successfully, creating that intimate experience with whales, so much so that it's kind of come back on them."

As it may on the zoo. Certainly, the suggestion that seeing animals in the zoo somehow makes children more conservation-minded incenses Mr. Hamilton of Lifeforce. "I really have to question whether the zoo and aquarium industry has any proof that this has increased protection for animals in the wild," he said. "More likely it has instilled in children and adults the idea that our species has the right to dominate other species for amusement and profit. That's speciesism, and it's as bad as racism or sexism or any of the other 'isms' out there afflicting the planet."

Mr. Hamilton has campaigned against the zoo in the past, particularly in 1991 when the facility, then known as the Vancouver Game Farm, initiated an ultimately futile attempt to change its zoning to commercial and expand into the arcade and trailer-park business. At the moment, however, Mr. Hamilton acknowledges that he's more preoccupied with his anti-Aquarium campaign.

Ingrid Pollak of the Vancouver Humane Society is another veteran anti-zoo campaigner. Although she is modestly hopeful about the changes Dr. Macquisten is making, she doubts very much whether the Greater Vancouver Zoo, or any zoo for that matter, can provide a worthwhile educational experience.

"Our policy is that they should all be closed down," Ms. Pollak said. "Most do not have educational programs in place that are helpful to animals in the wild."

Ms. Pollak even has her doubts that Tina's brief holiday will result in anything more than good public relations.

"It's only for 10 days after all," she said. "I have to wonder what difference it will make to the elephant."

Out at the farm site, Tina made her way out of the trailer and down to the waiting pasture by the edge of a pond. As she grazed her way slowly through the timothy grass and buttercups, she gave a series a high-pitched squeals, an expression perhaps, of elephant joy. It sounded remarkably like the call of a killer whale.

Shawn Blore is a Vancouver writer

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