Monday, September 30, 2013

Personal thoughts from a Toronto Zoo Elephant Keeper!

Personal thoughts from a Toronto Zoo Elephant Keeper!
(With kind permission of the author)

  • Elle LePhant

I woke up this morning, a slight pain in my lower back, both my knees aching, my wrists sore, all there to remind me of what I have chosen to devote my life to doing… and that is ensuring that the elephants I work with are given the highest quality of life that I am capable of providing them with. I go into work everyday and look at the exhausted faces of my friends and coworkers knowing that they had the same sleepless night as I did… again, to utilize every minute of the day (willingly or not) to try and think of something that we can do to ensure that a terrible mistake is not made. One that we are all terrified could put these three amazing animals, Toka, Thika and Iringa in harms way. 

But we do this with pride, despite the fact that online there are those who can’t wait to take their next shot at us and explain to the public their newest conspiracy theory on why the Toronto Zoo elephant keepers are fighting the fight we are. Some of these people KNOW that they are lying when they post these statements, and others have just been caught up in these lies. In this fight we are completely outgunned. They have money, connections, and friends in high places. All we have is our devotion to these animals and the truth.

There are two reasons we continue to fight. The first is an admittedly sometimes wavering but never undying belief that the truth and facts will win out over the lies of select government officials, “sanctuary” (a term I use loosely, “sanatorium” would be far more accurate) owners who are manipulating this situation as best they can to ensure their next $880,000 donation is right around the corner, and the animal rights activists that for some reason can’t see that the keepers are not the ones who stand to gain by spreading falsehoods. 

These people accuse us of sabotage, abuse and only being in this to protect our jobs. I can assure you that we have never done anything to hurt these elephants or sabotage their training. I can also assure you that we do this despite threats of disciplinary recourse rather than promises of job security and I would gladly give up my job and find a new career to if it would ensure that these elephants get to spend the remainder of their lives in the best place possible, one chosen by the experts that know them and their needs best. The second reason is the elephants. While most people are still in bed we keepers are with the elephants giving them their breakfast. When people are settling in for the evening we are with the elephants. While people are enjoying their weekends and holidays we are with the elephants. When you watch your family opening their gifts on Christmas morning we are with the elephants doing everything in our power to ensure that all their physical and emotional needs are being met as best we can. I spend more time with these three elephants than I do with my own family because in many ways these animals are my family. That is my motivation.

They are amazing animals that I have been fortunate enough to work with. Iringa is incredibly smart, and has an unwavering faith in us. That faith is a testament to this elephant program that I have been fortunate enough to be a part of. Toka’s enthusiasm is enough to snap any person out of a bad mood, she is eager to please and an amazing elephant to work with. Thika… well, Thika is a brat… and is the favourite of many keepers because of this. 

I am not going to get into all of the reasons that we feel there is a better option than PAWS because these reasons have been made available online for anyone who wants to look, but I will state one -it is hard to place any faith in an organization that openly lies about the elephants it houses. Only after vigilant people found proof that PAWS was treating elephants for TB did PAWS go public about the issue stating that they had two elephants that had tested positive for the deadly airborne disease. They continued to say however (and I am admittedly paraphrasing) that just because their elephants tested positive and they are treating them for TB doesn’t mean they have TB and that things are safe. This argument would not hold up in any courtroom. They then insulted zoo officials for trying to find this information (that they admit to hiding in the same article) by accusing them of being on a “witch hunt.” They also tried to invalidate the test. They claimed it couldn’t be trusted and the only real way to know was with a trunk wash, despite the fact that they had flown out to the Toronto Zoo a month earlier insisting that our elephants get the very same blood test they now claim is useless. They insisted upon this because of the fact that our elephants had ONLY been tested by a trunk wash which could not be trusted. These contradictions do not inspire confidence. If you say the test means nothing why do it in the first place? 

If we keepers were shown the medical records from PAWS perhaps we could sleep a little easier, but they refuse, so rather than sleeping easier we are more restless, increasingly concerned about what else they could possibly need to hide if they have already openly stated that their elephants have tested positive for Tuberculosis. 

Select Toronto City councillors are planning another visit to PAWS to evaluate the facility, again, without any of the Toronto Zoo keeping staff or veterinarians. Perhaps on the way they can also do the safety check for the plane they will fly in without the help of any engineers or airport staff because they are equally unqualified to perform that task, and about as unlikely to spot any errors. Some things call for a trained and educated eye.

In many ways I am broken from this experience, but I owe it to these elephants to continue this fight. People are welcome to continue to lie about my coworkers and I, we’ve gotten used to it. We live in a society where those with the loudest voices are not always those with the right answers. I ask anyone who reads about this issue to keep that in mind. Look at the facts, they speak for themselves. Their story does not add up. I write this for the elephants. People can sit at their computers and post their opinions all they like, but I deeply care about these animals and the ultimate proof is that I go in everyday and do everything I can to do right by them. To me they are not names and pictures on a computer screen, “city property”, or my ticket to another donation from a retired celebrity. They are living, breathing creatures that are relying on my coworkers and I to ensure they are safe and taken care of. That is my job and that is what I am doing now. Please prove to me that common sense and logic will win out in this battle. Help us do what is right for Toka, Thika and Iringa. 

On an end note, I would like to sincerely thank the many people (locally and internationally) whose unwavering dedication to ensuring that the elephants have a happy and healthy future has been nothing short of inspirational. You have never given up and neither will we. 

1 comment:

  1. I applaud this beautiful article about elephants and their keepers. I am a docent at a large, national zoo, and have behind-the-scenes knowledge of the caring and dedication of our elephant keepers. I agree with everything in this article and wish all the "get elephants out of the zoos" folks would indeed get their facts straight.