City and Reid Park Zoo officials plan to ship Connie the Asian elephant to San Diego, but a pair of local activists and a former game-show host have other ideas.
In an effort to keep Connie together with Shaba, her African elephant pal of 30 years, Tucson elephant aficionados Jessica Shuman and Tracy Toland have enlisted former "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker to spearhead a campaign to send Connie and Shaba to a California sanctuary.
"I think it is utterly disgusting that the zoo would even consider separating them at this stage of their life," Barker said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "It shows how little regard they have for their animals."
At the behest of Shuman and Toland, Barker has offered to contribute $500,000 to the cause if others are able to come up with a matching $500,000.
According to Shuman and Toland, it will cost about $1 million to custom-build a habitat and relocate the elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas, Calif.
PAWS is planning a "spacious barn" with a habitat designed for the elephants.
Last month, the City Council greenlighted the zoo's plan to send Connie, 42 years old and 7,000 pounds, to the San Diego Zoo. Zookeepers have said that Connie can't stay because Reid Park Zoo officials plan to open an exhibit this spring featuring a herd of African elephants they're bringing in from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Accreditation standards forbid the mixing of Asian and African elephants in new herds.
The plan is to integrate Shaba with the new herd.
Barker, for one, disagrees with the idea. A longtime supporter of animal-rights activism, Barker said he'll use his own money to fund the elephant transfer. He founded the DJ&T Foundation, which contributes money to animal neutering programs.
Barker said he's a fan of PAWS.
"I love it," he said. "I've worked with them for years. These elephants, if they are to move to PAWS, will have the nearest possible situation to their natural habitat."
Reid Park Zoo administrator Susan Basford and education curator Vivian VanPeenen say the elephants will be better off at a zoo than a sanctuary, which doesn't have to meet the same rigorous accreditation requirements as zoos do.
VanPeenen said there are more matters of elephant emotion to consider than the pairing of Connie and Shaba. Because Connie is older, Shaba will likely face life without her if Connie dies before her.
The current plan will allow both elephants to socialize in herds rather than just with each other.
VanPeenen said this animal activism effort is typical of the movement for attaching human emotions and standards to animals.
If the City Council forces the Reid Park Zoo to keep Connie and Shaba while opening its new elephant exhibit - which will be located at a different place from the current elephant exhibit - Basford said, the zoo will need more staff to take care of all its elephants.
Shuman and Toland organized a movement to keep the elephants together and asked PAWS to house the elephants after Reid Park Zoo officials said there was no other zoo that would house both elephants. They hope to get the City Council to vote to keep the elephants here for six more months, giving them time to raise the $500,000 to match Barker's donation.
The City Council could vote on the proposal as early as Jan. 24.
"I can't imagine what sort of 'councilors' you have," Barker said, using a mocking tone when uttering "councilors."
"But if they can't understand this is an egregious case of animal cruelty," they don't know what they're talking about, he said.
"I just feel in my heart of hearts that we can do it," Shuman said.
Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at email@example.com or 573-4130.