Group Seeks Move of Elephants to Sanctuary
By Tim Hrenchir
"A retirement retreat for tired elephant feet."
Nearly two years after the Topeka City Council in a 7-1 vote squashed a proposal to move Topeka Zoo elephants Sunda and Tembo to a Tennessee sanctuary, Animal Outreach of Kansas is leading another charge to convince the city to take that step.
But zoo director Brendan Wiley spoke against the proposed move Wednesday, saying the zoo takes great pride in the care it provides for the elephants.
Animal Outreach of Kansas, a nonprofit organization, announced Wednesday it had put up two billboards along S.W. Gage Boulevard as part of a campaign to convince the city to retire 49-year-old Sunda, an Asian elephant, and 40-year-old Tembo, an African elephant, to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.
The billboards are located near Gage’s intersections with Interstate 70 and S.W. 20th Street.
"AOK is drawing attention to retiring the elephants as a way to help the elephants and the zoo," said AOK co-founder Judy Carman. "The Topeka Zoo has been struggling to overcome its poor image, but as long as the elephants remain there, animal welfare will continue to be a serious concern."
AOK co-founder Ann Wilson said: "Tembo and Sunda have spent more than 36-plus years on display at the Topeka Zoo, living in a small, outdated exhibit that does not provide the space elephants need to remain healthy. As a result, both elephants suffer from health issues, have exhibited aggression towards one another, and display neurotic behaviors, such as swaying and rocking."
In a news release Wednesday, AOK said the sanctuary provides 2,700 acres of natural habitat, expert care and a moderate climate far more suitable for elephants.
The release said the sanctuary has agreed to transport and provide lifelong care to Tembo and Sunda at no cost to the zoo or the city.
The news release said that in contrast to the elephant sanctuary, the Topeka Zoo provides less than three-quarters of an acre of space and subjects the elephants to harsh, freezing winters that force them indoors into a tiny concrete barn for most of the winter months.
"This only exacerbates health problems, including often-lethal foot disease caused by lack of movement and hard surfaces," the release said.
Carman, a Lecompton resident, had asked the public in a letter to the editor published Jan. 3 in The Topeka Capital-Journal to urge Wiley to support the move of Sunda and Tembo to the Tennessee sanctuary, which she described as an "elephant paradise."
A similar effort on behalf of Sunda and Tembo prompted an elephant-sized disagreement nearly two years ago.
Councilman John Alcala voted in favor of the move, while Karen Hiller, Jack Woelfel, Larry Wolgast, Deborah Swank, Bob Archer, Jeff Preisner and Richard Harmon voted against it.
Councilwoman Sylvia Ortiz was absent from that meeting, where Hiller and Archer argued that the city, which then had an interim director running the zoo, should hire a zoo director to serve on a more permanent basis before making a decision on the elephants’ future.
Archer said that day, "The dialogue is going to continue, only when it continues we’ll have a very important player, and that will be the next zoo director."
Wiley, who became zoo director in May 2010, said Wednesday he doesn’t see that there is an issue with the way Sunda and Tembo are cared for.
"We welcome people in to experience not only that care but the relationship that our caretakers have with our elephants," he said. "If we ever feel like we need to do something different with our elephants, we will make that decision and follow through with it."Woelfel, Swank and Preisner were replaced on the council this past April by Denise Everhart, Chad Manspeaker and Andrew Gray.
Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.