Wanda and Winky, the two Asian elephants that officials at the Detroit Zoo want to send from the northern cold to a southern sanctuary, must go to the Columbus Zoo instead, the accrediting association for the nation's zoos has decided.
Responding to a second appeal from the Detroit Zoological Institute, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) ruled Thursday that the two elderly animals would fare best in a zoo that can provide extensive care for them. The zoo in Ohio's capital has one of the nation's larger elephant facilities and five Asian elephants, including a baby.
The decision ends a contentious appeal process within the AZA, but it may not be the end of the saga. Ron Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoo, said in a statement: "We are very disappointed and are considering what action to take. . . . We want what is best for these elephants."
Kagan unsettled the zoo world this summer when he said that he did not think northern zoos such as his can ethically keep elephants.
He said that the animals need large spaces where they can walk -- in the wild, some travel 30 miles a day -- and that no northern zoo can provide enough space in the winter. As a result, Kagan said, his zoo will no longer exhibit elephants. Wanda, 45, and Winky, 51, would do best, he said, in a southern elephant sanctuary where they could live out their days.
Asian elephants are an endangered species, and their movements and care in larger American zoos is overseen by an arm of the AZA. Soon after Kagan voiced his interest in sending the two animals to either a California or a Tennessee sanctuary, the AZA stepped in and objected.
Its position was that Wanda and Winky should go to another AZA-accredited facility, where they could remain a part of what AZA officials call the American herd. The two females would fit well into the Columbus Zoo, they concluded, would enjoy the company of other female elephants and might help care for the new baby.
Complicating the issue was the fact that Winky and Wanda -- who had lived together in Detroit for the past 10 years -- belonged respectively to the Detroit and San Antonio zoos. In order for the animals to be declared "surplus" to the herd and eligible for a life together in a sanctuary, both zoos would have to agree to that solution. The San Antonio director, J. Stephen McCusker, did not agree, so the issue went to the AZA for a decision and then two appeals.
The issue of animal welfare has become increasingly important to many people, and the case of the two Detroit elephants touched a nerve with some advocates. Cynthia Moss, director of the African Elephant Conservation Trust, said: "What would be the best outcome for these two elephants at their advanced age is to be able to live out their last years together in a warm climate. I feel that the decision is not what is best for the elephants."
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States called the AZA decision "an unfortunate and disturbing outcome for two animals caught in a web of political maneuvering" and said, "The AZA's rejection of this animal-friendly option reflects a basic and undeniable failure to make the animals' needs a top priority."
But Kevin Willis, vice chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Management Committee of the AZA, which heard the Detroit Zoo appeal, said the two aged elephants would do best at the Columbus Zoo, where their arthritis and foot problems could be best attended to.
"The committee looked at all sides of this issue and made the welfare of these elephants a priority," he said in a statement. "With all facts and opinions considered, we determined that transferring them to the Columbus Zoo is the best option."
The two sanctuaries that Kagan favored for the animals are the Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre facility in Hohenwald, Tenn., and a preserve operated by the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas, Calif. The 2,300-acre, cage-free habitat for a variety of animals has a 100-acre range for elephants.
At the National Zoo, concrete flooring in the Elephant House has contributed to foot problems for several animals housed there. The zoo, however, is building a bigger facility for its elephants, including a young male it hopes to breed.