Old friends

The average lifespan of an Asian elephant is 60 years. They are sociable, and zookeepers have reported that captive elephants who are separated from their social group and placed on their own can die of "broken-hearted syndrome."

Where will Wandy and Winky spend their twilight years?

It's a dilemma many families and caregivers face: How do you best care for loved ones as they near the end of their lives? Assisted living or nursing home? In an apartment with son No. 1 or in a guesthouse next to daughter No. 2?

Such is the disagreement between two zookeepers deciding where a pair of female Asian elephants, Wanda, 45, and Winky, 51, will spend their remaining twilight years. They have arthritis. Foot problems. And they're past their calf-bearing years. Given their druthers, they'd stand in one place all day.

Roy Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoo, which owns Winky, prefers to send them to an elephant sanctuary in a warmer climate with more acreage. Steve McCusker, executive director of the San Antonio Zoo, which owns Wanda, wants to send them to the Columbus Zoo because it has the staff to deal with the elephants' medical needs.

And ideally, Wanda and Winky, close pals for 10 years, would stay together.

After six months of "discussion and dialogue," the Conflict Resolution Committee of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association had to intervene, and on November 18, ruled that Winky and Wanda's new home should be Columbus, which has a modern facility and a large elephant herd and is accredited by the AZA.

The AZA upheld a prior recommendation by the Elephant Species Survival Plan.

Although Detroit's frigid winter climate prompted that city's zookeepers to move Wanda and Winky, McCusker said, "The temperature issue is less than 100 percent valid. There are elephants in Calgary, Alberta; Portland, Oregon; Syracuse, New York."

The Detroit Zoo did not return calls from the Current seeking comment, but in a press release stated that Wanda and Winky weren't getting enough exercise because of cold weather, which was further exacerbating their arthritis and foot problems.

"We want what is best for these elephants," Kagan said in the release. "We are very disappointed and are considering what action to take."

Old female elephants can be hard to place because they're considered over the hill as breeders. Yet, they apparently can serve as doting elders and matriarchs for the herd. "Columbus was glad to take them for herd members and they could be aunties for the calves," said McCusker.

Wanda hasn't been to San Antonio since 1984, when the zoo sent her to Fort Worth in hopes that she would find a bull that struck her fancy and then get pregnant. Yet Wanda, whom McCusker described as "fairly calm" and easily trained, but occasionally "unattentive," remained calfless, rebuffing bulls' advances for 10 years before she was trucked to the Detroit Zoo, where she met her life partner, Winky.

Kagan suggested moving Wanda and Winky to a sanctuary in Tennessee, but it averages only four degrees warmer than Columbus, and the long truck trip would likely stress the elephants. A San Diego Wildlife Park rejected Detroit's request because its Asian elephant facilities were full.

McCusker countered that sanctuaries would not be suitable for Wanda and Winky because old elephants tend to turn into couch potatoes. "They stand in one spot regardless of how many acres they have," McCusker said. "It's not a 'Born Free' sort of thing. They need to be conditioned to walk around and lubricate their joints. The animals we've seen in Tennessee and California were basically stationary or they'd stand near the fence and watch people and the cars go by."

Detroit Zoo could still send Winky to a sanctuary - although the zoo would lose its AZA accreditation - and San Antonio can transfer Wanda to Columbus. "I don't know what's going to happen," said McCusker. "We want to keep the two animals together, but we can do with our animal whatever want."

As for McCusker and Kagan's professional relationship, it's not as close as Wanda and Winky's.

"I've known Ron for 20 years," said McCusker. "We're collegial, but we've always had disagreements. We've never seen eye-to-eye on a lot of things."

By Lisa Sorg

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