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Editorial: Doing what's best for our elephants

Elephants are majestic creatures whose gracefulness, sensitivity and agility may seem surprising given their size, but it is those qualities, among others, that endear them to so many humans.

To have two of these animals in Buffalo has been a pleasure to thousands of visitors but, given their environment here, unkind to the elephants.

It is, thus, both bittersweet and heartwarming that the Buffalo Zoo plans to relocate its Asian elephants to New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo this fall. The result will be no elephants at the zoo for the first time in more than a century. Buffalo Zoo President and CEO Norah Fletchall acknowledged that the zoo will be unlikely to get any elephants in the future.

It is difficult to part with Jothi and Surapa, 36 and 35 years old, respectively. By human standards, they are in their prime. By elephant standards, their middle-age years could pose challenges. It is why they have to move.

The elephants’ medical condition and state of the zoo’s facility makes the move necessary, according to Jonathan Dandes, chairman of the zoo’s board of directors. The board’s unanimous decision did not come hastily. It was made following two months of research by the zoo’s elephant task force, and presumably after much soul-searching.

Elephants have been part of the Buffalo Zoo since it first acquired Big Frank in 1900. The zoo’s elephant house was constructed in 1912. The animals have roamed over the decades here much to the delight of eager audiences. Jothi and Surapa arrived in Buffalo in 1987 from Arignar Anna Zoological Park in India. Their previous companion, Buki, died in 2009 in Buffalo at age 52.

Zoo and board officials want the best for Jothi and Surapa. Not everyone saw it that way. Buffalo has consistently been on an annual “Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America.” The list is compiled by the animal rights group In Defense of Animals.

The reaction to criticism and a delayed accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums resulted in expansion. That was more than a decade ago. Now the Buffalo Zoo holds elite status as part of the 10 percent of U.S. zoos which are accredited.

Neither Jothi nor Surapa is in declining health, according to Fletchall. But continuing to do right by the elephants would incur expense. It would also cause logistical habitat challenges that might be difficult to overcome. Other upgrades, updates and new exhibits would not be completed.

Letting go of Jothi and Surapa is tough, but it is best for these gorgeous, wrinkled creatures. Better that they are cared for under conditions more suitable to their age and stature.

But we will miss them.

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