Zoo plans to split elephants in return for breeding herd

Reid Park Zoo's Asian elephant Connie, left, will be leaving the zoo to go to San Diego in exchange for a herd of African elephants to go into the zoo's new enclosure. Connie and Shaba, right, have been together for 29 years.

Connie and Shaba will stay together after all - "as long as needed," says Reid Park Zoo spokeswoman Vivian VanPeenen.

Tucson and Reid Park Zoo officials, working behind the scenes on a deal the public didn't know about, finalized it Tuesday to move both elephants to the San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey exhibit, city officials revealed in a news release last night.

"I am glad we found a solution that will keep Connie and Shaba together and provide them with excellent care," Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said in the news release, after taking part in a conference call with San Diego Zoo officials. "This is a really good result for Connie, Shaba and the Tucsonans of all ages who love them."

Previously, Tucson officials had planned to ship Connie, the Asian elephant, to San Diego without Shaba, her African elephant pal of 30 years.

Accreditation standards do not allow the mixing of Asian and African elephants when zoos establish new herds, which Reid Park Zoo plans to do this year. Local zookeepers had said Connie couldn't stay here after Tucson obtains a herd of breeding African elephants from San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The plan had been to integrate Shaba into that new herd in a new exhibit that the Reid Park Zoo hopes to open in the spring. Under zoo accreditation standards, a herd must contain at least three elephants.

But a pair of local activists spearheaded a public outcry, saying Connie and Shaba shouldn't be separated after spending so many years together. Jessica Shuman and Tracy Toland even enlisted former "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker in their campaign, and Barker said he would use his own money to move the two elephants together to a California sanctuary if Tucsonans would raise a matching $500,000.

It turns out, VanPeenen explained Tuesday night, that the San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey exhibit has a single African elephant mixed in with its Asian elephant herd. That means Connie and Shaba can both be moved there without violating zoo accreditation standards.

"Once they're settled in, the San Diego Zoo will evaluate" whether Connie and Shaba should both stay with that herd, VanPeenen said. But zookeepers do anticipate Connie will gravitate to the Asian elephants while Shaba will be drawn to the African, she said.

Connie and Shaba will now travel together to San Diego. A travel date hasn't been set.

Asked whether Reid Park Zoo will try to take Barker up on his financial offer, VanPeenen said, "We would love to take him up on his offer, but … Bob Barker's only interest is his anti-zoo agenda. I think I can guarantee you he would never give money to a zoo."