Thursday, September 04, 2008

Toronto Zoo, and its elephants, mourn Tequila

Posted: September 03, 2008, 6:51 PM by Rob Roberts

By Danielle Wong, National Post

The surprise death of a Toronto Zoo elephant yesterday offered a fresh challenge for veterinarian staff who have learned that elephants, like humans, mourn the death of their loved ones.
When Thika found her mother, a 38-year-old African elephant named Tequila, dead early at the zoo’s outdoor elephant exhibit, she stayed beside the body for four hours. Thika even started digging at the ground and throwing dirt on her mother’s body, as if hoping to get any response at all.
It wasn’t until Toronto Zoo staff stepped in between the two elephants that Thika parted from Tequila.
“Elephants are extremely intelligent,” the executive director of conservation education and research at the zoo, Dr. Bill Rapley, said yesterday.
“When we look at animal behaviour, it’s so hard to put it in human perspective. But elephants seem to show responses that are human-like.”
In fact, Thika was looking around the exhibit last night, as if trying to find her mother, Dr. Rapley said.
When a 40-year-old elephant named Patsy died at the zoo in 2006, staff videotaped and observed the herd’s grieving ritual, the veterinarian said.
“They touch, they move around slowly almost like mourning in a funeral,” he said, adding that the elephants who got along with Patsy came up to touch her with their trunks while the ones who fought with her stood further back.
Not only do elephants grieve, research shows they remember and mourn their loved ones for years, Barbara Cartwright, the campaign manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare Canada, said.
“It’s important that we ... recognize elephants do grieve ... as a scientific [fact] now,” she said. “In the past, it was considered putting human emotion on an animal ... It’s been a long time coming.”
Elephants are known to spend a lot of time caressing the carcass as well as conduct burial ceremonies by walking around the body and laying clumps of grass and tree branches over it, Ms. Cartwright said.
Herd members will even stop years after at the sites where their loved ones died, she said.
“It’s probably not good to have elephants held in captivity because they’re so social,” Ms. Cartwright said, but added she was pleased the zoo gave time for the elephants to mourn Tequila.
The Toronto Zoo now has an elephant herd of five females.
Tequila, who was named for her “fiery disposition” and dominance over the other elephants during her earlier years, became a pleasant animal liked by zoo keepers and the herd as she got older, Dr. Rapley said.
The 3,738-kilogram elephant came to Toronto from southern Africa — most likely Mozambique — on a Polish ocean line ship in 1974.
She had two calves with bull elephant Tantor: Thika was born in 1980 and Tumpe, who is now at the Animal Kingdom in Disneyland, in 1983.
Tequila was in very good health and showed no signs of illness, Dr. Rapley said. “It’s somewhat distressing to us ....We’ve got an animal in good condition ... that seemed to be doing absolutely fine and suddenly dropped dead, which is very perplexing.”
Veterinary staff at the zoo and the Ontario Veterinary College at the Guelph University conducted an autopsy yesterday and are continuing to investigate the cause of death, Dr. Rapley said.
Currently, not enough research exists to gauge the average lifespan of African elephants due to their relatively short history of captivity, he said.