Elephants Connie and Shaba at the Reid Park Zoo are beloved longtime citizens of Tucson. They have been together since 1982, when Connie, who was 15, took 2-year-old Shaba "under her trunk," if you will. They bonded and became family.
Now, after nearly 30 years, the zoo wants to separate them and send Connie away to another zoo. Not only is this wrong, the people of Tucson - including zoo goers who have known these elephants for so very long - have absolutely no voice in the matter.
On Nov. 22 Mayor Bob Walkup and the Tucson City Council had a chance to help Connie and Shaba. Despite receiving more than 16,000 emails opposing the elephants' separation, they bowed to the zoo, which plans to open a multimillion-dollar exhibit for African elephants next year.
It wasn't that long ago that the Reid Park Zoo was arguing that Connie and Shaba should remain together. Several years ago, during the fight against a drive to send the elephants to a spacious, natural-habitat elephant sanctuary, zoo director Susan Basford insisted that the right thing to do was to keep Connie and Shaba right here in Tucson, in an expanded exhibit. She stated in an article published in the Tucson Weekly in February 2006, "We have such a perfect place for elephants. … Perfect climate, great keepers, two animals acclimated to each other, or bonded to each other and to their keepers. …These animals, if at all possible, should stay together.'"
Unlike an elephant, the zoo quickly forgot its obligation to Connie and Shaba. Only recently did we learn that the San Diego Zoo Safari Park would send a group of African elephants to the Reid Park Zoo's new exhibit. Connie, an Asian elephant, apparently does not fit in with those plans. And Shaba may not either, as there is no guarantee that she will easily integrate with an already bonded group of elephants that includes calves. If she doesn't, it would mean that she, too, would be sent to another zoo.
The Reid Park Zoo's heartless dismissal of the 30-year bond between Connie and Shaba defies everything we know about elephants: their intelligence, profoundly deep social bonds (females remain with their mothers for life) and the capacity for deep emotion. Everyone is familiar with the way that elephants mourn their dead, gently touching their remains and revisiting their "graves" often. Saying Connie will be well cared for at San Diego will be of little consolation to either elephant whose longtime bond will be shattered.
Had Connie been born an African elephant, things may have been different. But the zoo claims that she must now live with other Asian elephants - despite 30 years of close companionship with Shaba, an African elephant.
No one is saying that the zoo should not bring in a group of elephants from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
We are saying that the zoo and the city should be capable of finding a creative solution that will preserve Connie and Shaba's lifelong bond.
Given that the exhibit will be seven acres in size, surely a place could be made for the two of them, adjacent to the new group. When the older Connie passes away, Shaba could be integrated with them.
But this is only one solution. There are others, including an elephant sanctuary, but there has to be the will on the part of our City Council to explore them.
Connie and Shaba deserve far better treatment after serving the people of Tucson for so many years. And the people of Tucson deserve to have a voice in what will be the most important decision of these elephants' lives.
Please call your City Council members today and ask them to have a heart, revisit this issue and come up with a compassionate solution - Connie and Shaba's lives depend on it.
Tracy Toland and Jessica Shuman live in Tucson. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org