Historicist: Elephant Escapades
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Historicist: Elephant Escapades

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Two of the Metro Toronto Zoo’s herd of elephants, between 1975 and 1985. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 4, Item 0045.

Dateline: August 1974. Richard Nixon resigns the presidency of the United States. Turkey invades Cyprus for the second time in a year. Bob Barker is on the cusp of his second anniversary as host of The Price is Right. Toronto endures a 23-day transit strike, which is among the factors blamed for lower than expected attendance at the city’s newest major attraction, the Metro Toronto Zoo. Though many of the exhibits at the zoo are still under construction when the public is officially let in on August 15, three young African elephants named Tantor, Tara, and Tessa are on hand for their viewing pleasure. The deaths of Tara and Tessa within months of each other 35 years later (and criticism from animal welfare advocates like Barker) prompted the decision this past week by the zoo’s board to close down the elephant exhibit and move the three remaining elephants elsewhere. Left behind are four decades of alternately amusing and terrifying tales.

Source: Metro Toronto Zoo 1982 Annual Report.

Born in Mozambique circa 1969, the zoo’s initial trio of elephants spent time in Europe before they travelled via ocean liner from Hamburg to Toronto. As workers were still putting the finishing touches on the elephant enclosure, Tessa spent her first night at the Metro Toronto Zoo in the hippo area alongside similarly displaced seals. During the first week the elephants were in their new home, elephant keeper Toby Styles had to warn visitors not to feed the trio peanuts “unless you want to kill them slowly”—seems the stereotypical elephant snack is too rich for the mammals’ digestive systems. School kids too eager to get close to the elephants caused problems during the preview period when several fell into the moat surrounding the enclosure, but luckily for them the animals ignored the interlopers.
As the lone bull elephant, Tantor often had to deal with stereotypically teenage-male issues, such as raging hormones (known as musth in elephants) and being grounded whenever he got carried away by lust. On June 5, 1983, 13-year-old Tantor was making amorous advances toward the younger female members of the herd, which irritated herd leader Pat. When she tried to stop Tantor from getting to first base with any of the others, hundreds of onlookers saw how Tantor handled having his romantic quest obstructed. As director of live collections Lawrence Cahill told the Star, “he didn’t like the interference and he flattened Pat.” Keepers tried to calm Tantor, but unverified reports indicate some handlers had to swim to safety. When the attack occurred, Styles, by then a supervisor, was enjoying a day off:

One weekend I was off and got a call at home that the bull elephant had attacked the matriarch, got her down by the pool and tried to drown her, or beat her up. I walked about halfway across the paddock, just talking to him. He turned and you could see him listening — and then he just tucked his trunk under and put his ears out and charged like a great big truck. In most cases what you do is charge them back – it’s just like a big bluff. But he started to come at me and I knew this was the time to get the hell out of there. I didn’t know I could still move that fast.

Foreman Duncan Bourne told the Star that Pat was “bruised up pretty good and has some cuts, but that’s about all. I think her feelings are more hurt than anything. After a few days of rest, she’ll be returned to the pen.”
Following the attack, Tantor was placed in isolation for several months. Keepers discovered that listening to CFRB soothed him, especially when commentator Gordon Sinclair spoke. When told about his largest fan, the veteran journalist was amused. He said that he understood how Tantor felt, since “he’s a big strong male and he shouldn’t push anyone around.”

If Gordon Sinclair could soothe an elephant, would Glenn Gould singing Mahler have the same effect on the rest of the herd? Check out the clip above from from the 1985 documentary Glenn Gould: A Portrait (the story leading into the appearance of the elephants starts around the 7:00 mark).
Sinclair wasn’t the only journalist to have an unexpected relationship with Tantor. Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates once described an encounter with Tantor where she could have become the special of the day:

Tantor’s moods would make human parents grateful for the forms their adolescents’ rebellion take. Bang. 10,000 pounds of angry teen-aged elephant hits the side of the cage. Concrete shivers. He wraps his trunk around the cage pillars and shakes. Then out comes the trunk from the cage, questing angrily toward us. Clearly this elephant is dreaming of human lunch. The keeper offers him instead a little hors d’oeuvre: a five-foot-long willow log, seven inches in diameter. Tantor picks up the log with his hairy trunk, brings it to his mouth, and starts eating. But this is only an appetizer, an elephantine cracker with cheese, for a guy who eats 300 pounds a day of hay, plus treats.

Tantor remained at the zoo until he died from complications following surgery to remove an abscessed left tusk in 1989. With a final weight of 14,300 pounds and height of just over 11 feet tall at the shoulder, he was considered Canada’s largest animal. To carry out an autopsy, his carcass was hoisted by crane onto a flatbed truck that delivered him to the University of Guelph. Since he couldn’t fit in the pathology lab, dissection was started outside the building in front of a crowd of gawkers. Tantor’s remains were offered to the Royal Ontario Museum, who sent his carcass to a farm for a few years to naturally clean lingering flesh off the bones. Since the late 1990s, the ROM has used Tantor’s skeleton as a teaching specimen, aiding researchers in identifying fossils.

Announcing the arrival of Thika, the Toronto Sun, October 27, 1980.

During his stay at the zoo, Tantor sired four calves. His firstborn, Thika, was the first African elephant to be born in Canada when she arrived on October 18, 1980. Outsiders weren’t allowed to see her for a week so as not to upset her protective mother, Tequila. Three years later, Tequila surprised zoo officials following a morning feeding when her second child Tumpe was born without warning. Tantor’s other offspring had short lives: Toronto (named for the city’s 150th anniversary) died at the age of 10, while T.W. expired after two days. Following Tantor’s death, plans were made to artificially inseminate the females to increase the zoo’s elephant population, but, after initial preparations with Thika, the regimen was deemed risky and the practice of breeding elephants at Metro Toronto Zoo came to an end.
The lack of a male didn’t lower the risk of injury to elephant handlers, as zookeeper Nick Rensinck learned on November 7, 1993. That morning, Rensinck attempted to end a disagreement between Thika and Iringa. When he tried to force Iringa back, she threw him across the holding area with her trunk and gored him repeatedly in the leg while he was pinned on his back. Rensinck might have been killed if two fellow zookeepers hadn’t rushed to his rescue. The incident raised tensions between the zoo and the Canadian Union of Public Employees over safety and the number of vacant zookeeper positions that hadn’t been filled due to financial pressures. The day after the incident, zookeepers staged an hour-long protest and refused to start work until park officials assured them more workers would be hired. Three months after the incident, Rensinck visited Iringa and seemed to bear no hard feelings. “I went to see her just a little while ago and she seems happy; the meeting was fine…I rubbed her side and we had a little talk,” he told the Star. As for the goring, Rensinck felt that “she was unhappy at the time and likely mistook me for another elephant and treated me that way… There’s a risk involved when you work with animals, and that’s just a fact of nature.”

Elephant area, Metro Toronto Zoo, between 1975 and 1985. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 4, Item 0034.

It may also be a fact of nature that captive elephants seem to have shorter lives than their wild cousins. While the natural lifespan of elephants is in the 50 to 70 year range, the average age of the quartet of elephants that expired at the zoo between 2006 and 2009 was 39.5, which provided fuel for activists hoping to send them to a less confined environment. As of this writing, it is undetermined where the zoo’s final trio of elephants will find a new home or what will replace the exhibit.
Additional material from the June 7, 1983 and January 5, 1984 editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 18, 1998 edition of the National Post; the July 2010 edition of Toronto Life; the August 3, 1974, August 17, 1974, November 25, 1983, July 4, 1987, August 4, 1989, August 6, 1989, November 8, 1993, and February 18, 1994 editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 9, 1993 edition of the Windsor Star.