Senators reject field trip to African Lion Safari amid elephant bill study

Senators reject field trip

A proposed road trip for senators to visit the elephants at the African Lion Safari near Hamilton was rejected Thursday as some members of the Senate legal affairs committee called it a waste of taxpayers money.

But Conservative Senate leader Don Plett said it is only right that senators see for themselves how the elephants are treated at African Lion Safari before voting on a bill that could put the zoo out of business.

The trip, which committee chair Sen. Mobina Jaffer said would cost at least $50,000, was proposed by some Conservative senators as the committee studies Bill S-15. The bill would prohibit new captivity and breeding of elephants and great apes except in cases of conservation, science or animal welfare.

There are more than 30 great apes — chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas — in Canadian zoos, and 23 elephants. All but six of the elephants are at African Lion Safari.

"The majority of the testimony around the elephants has been that they are social animals," Plett said during the committee discussion.

"So why don't we see whether they are happy and ask them whether they are happy? Apparently, they can talk to us, according to what we heard today. So why don't we go and ask them if they’re happy?"

Plett said he has visited the zoo many times, the elephants are treated well and he is "offended" that senators are refusing to go.

"When I go and look at the massive, massive building that they have, that's an open building that these elephants can walk in and out of at their pleasure," he said.

"They are not in a cage, they are not fenced in there when they have 300 acres to roam around in wooded areas and I see them picking apples off the trees."

Sen. Marty Klyne, who sits with the Progressive Senators Group, said such a trip would trigger a "massive lobbying effort" by the African Lion Safari, which could hide any mistreatment during a visit.

"I don’t agree with using $50,000 in taxpayer money to get a one-sided view of elephant captivity in Canada at a for-profit business," Klyne said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

"The costs would be even more prohibitive for visiting a place for comparison, such as an elephant sanctuary in the U.S., where these elephants should be moved, or their natural habitat, where elephants belong."

Eight senators from the progressive group and the Independent Senators Group voted against taking the trip, while three Conservatives — including Plett — voted in favour.

The committee has heard multiple opinions on the impact of zoo captivity on elephants and great apes.

African Lion Safari general manager Trish Garth told the committee on April 11 that her zoo has a "proven track record" for having one of the most successful conservation programs for Asian elephants in North America.

The proposed legislation "would fundamentally inhibit African Lion Safari's research and conservation work for the Asian elephant," Garth said.

"The intent of this bill is to end the breeding of certain legislated species. This would essentially phase out elephants in Canada."

She said the bill leaves it up to the minister to decide which conservation efforts get a licence.

Both organizations that set standards for and accredit zoos in Canada said the bill is unnecessary because elephants and great apes are already protected by federal law as endangered species.

"We disagree that human care of great apes and elephants is inherently cruel," said Daniel Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

He said zoos provide a critical education component to connect humans with nature, so they can develop an understanding for, and empathize with, animals.

Serge Lussier, commissioner of accreditation at Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums said accredited members of his organization should be exempted from the bill.

Keith Lindsay, a wildlife ecologist with nearly half a century of experience with elephants and the impacts of captivity, told the committee that most conservation work on elephants at zoos is not done to benefit animals in the wild, but to benefit and study animals also in captivity.

He also said there is "no credible evidence" that visitors to zoos become more empathetic to elephants after seeing them in captivity.

He said there are negative health impacts on elephants, even at zoos like African Lion Safari where they aren't held in small pens but are allowed to wander larger areas.

"Even the largest zoo compounds are a tiny fraction of the normal home range of Asian and African elephants," Lindsay said.

He said many in larger compounds are restricted in the winter when it is too cold for them, causing psychological stress and physical damage.

Plett — who said he has relatives who were born in South America — doesn't buy that argument.

"Somebody born in South America, and they lived there until adulthood and come to Winnipeg, they find it pretty cold," he said.

"But when they are born in Winnipeg they don't find it that cold. Well, an animal is exactly the same thing. There's no such a thing as an animal doesn't belong in a certain climate."

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