Published: Monday, July 31, 2006
Patsy, the 8,500 pound elephant, was the matriarch of the Toronto Zoo’s elephant herd. When there were fights to be broken up, it was Patsy that did the honours. Maintaining general order among the zoo’s other six elephants? That was Patsy’s job, too. And she was eminently qualified. At 40 years of age, and with over 30 of those years spent in Toronto, Patsy had the sort of experience an elephant needs to be taken seriously by its peers.
Combine that with her formidable presence (senior elephant keeper Eric Cole called her “imposing and unique”) and it was easy to see why Patsy had emerged as the head of the herd. But now Toronto’s elephants — Thika, Toka, Iringa, Tara, Tequila and Tessa— will have to find a new leader. Last Monday, zoo staff euthanized Patsy after determining that the degenerative arthritis that was causing her great pain could not be treated.
Elephants are complex, social animals. They understand and are moved by the death of one of their own. And so zoo keepers allowed the six remaining elephants to spend one last night with Patsy after she was put down. The elephants touched Patsy’s lifeless body with their trunks, tusks and feet — actions the Zoo’s CEO Calvin White says were signs of mourning. There is little doubt that Patsy’s keepers and some frequent Zoo visitors will also find a way to grieve the animal’s loss.
The Zoo has said that in the wake of Patsy’s death, and given the advanced age of its remaining elephant population, it will have to re-examine the direction its elephant exhibit will take in the future. Obviously, it should only take on the care of new elephants if it can afford to keep them in a healthy environment that allows them to thrive. But with this caveat, we hope the Zoo will decide to maintain its elephant exhibit in the years to come. Not only are these extraordinary creatures amazing to behold because of their size and strength; their social sensitivity — as evidenced by their ability to mourn a herd member such as Patsy — makes them especially intriguing to observe.
It is sad enough that Torontonians can no longer visit Patsy. It would be an even greater loss if they could no longer visit any of her kind.