So Long, Connie

When it comes to elephants, Reid Park Zoo officials leave a trail of shifting explanations

Connie is an Asian elephant. Shaba is African. For nearly three decades, they shared a half-acre allotted to them at the Reid Park Zoo.

"Shaba has a lot of respect for Connie," said Gale Ferrick, who spent more than two decades caring for the animals. "She will always wait until Connie's done with a toy before she goes after it. At night, when they're inside, Shaba will roll her toys out of her stall, across the aisle and into Connie's stall.

"Their bond is very deep," Ferrick added. "If Shaba makes even the slightest noise, any kind of alarm, Connie rushes over to her and stands guard over her."

Ferrick made those remarks in 2005 to the Arizona Daily Star.

So essential was this "bond" that zoo officials and their bosses at the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department endlessly and publicly pimped it, while raising millions of dollars to expand the elephant enclosure to 3 acres.

Driving this was a mandate by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—which accredits Reid Park and some 200 other American zoos—that fertile elephants such as Shaba be bred to keep captive populations from dwindling. But without extra space, AZA officials warned, she might need to be moved elsewhere. In response, schoolchildren wrote letters supporting the expansion, and civic groups pumped flesh to raise the needed millions.

At the same time, animal-rights activists floated the idea that Connie and Shaba might be happier at a 2,700-acre elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. But in response, zoo director Susan Basford spoke about the importance of keeping this pair intact and keeping them at the Reid Park Zoo. "We have such a perfect place for elephants," she told the Tucson Weekly in 2006. "Perfect climate, great keepers, two animals that are acclimated to each other, or bonded to each other and to their keepers."

In the end, the city pledged $8.5 million to enlarge the elephant enclosure, with about half of that coming from private donations—all to ensure that Connie and Shaba would remain together. That price tag has since grown to $9.7 million.

But by 2006, Basford pulled the plug on efforts to impregnate Shaba. Even more surprising was how seamlessly the zoo then rearranged its priorities: The former obsession with keeping Connie and Shaba together—and the importance of their bonding—suddenly wasn't so critical after all.

That became clear recently when Basford announced that, after all those decades together, the pair would soon be split apart. The reason, she explained, was that AZA standards require Asian and African elephants such as Connie and Shaba to be kept separately.

One could be forgiven for looking a bit askance at this new Asian-African emphasis—particularly since it garnered nary a peep during the zoo's 2005 fundraising frenzy.

Meanwhile, when animal advocates reiterated the same point that Basford had trumpeted not so long ago—namely, that Connie and Shaba were quite bonded after rubbing shoulders for 29 years—zoo education curator Vivian VanPeenen promptly called them "animal extremists" who wanted nothing more than to shut down the zoo for good.

Either way, it appears that the zoo's flip-flop may just have been calculated strategy. Consider that Reid Park officials had long been in negotiations with counterparts at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to import a small herd of African elephants to Tucson, and to dispatch Connie to San Diego. Just how long is unclear; Basford remains vague about when those talks actually began.

Ward 2 City Councilman Paul Cunningham views this byzantine pageant with a slightly jaundiced eye. "There's definitely an argument that there is 'science of convenience' here," he says of the zoo's sudden concern over the Asian-African standard.

At the same time, he agrees with Reid Park officials that bringing in new elephants will revitalize the zoo, and that separating Connie and Shaba now—by sending Connie to live with other Asian elephants in San Diego—is preferable to waiting until she dies, leaving Shaba alone. (Connie is 44 years old, while Shaba is 31.)

Still, a bad taste lingers.

"I think all those years ago, if they exploited the relationship between the elephants to raise money for the zoo, and now they're separating them, that's a shame," Cunningham says.

Basford says the goal behind expanding Reid Park's elephant exhibit—to make the zoo a more-robust partner in AZA breeding efforts—has not changed since the expansion was first floated. "Certainly at the time, we anticipated keeping those elephants together. But in the six years between then and now, lots of things have changed."

Among them is San Diego's African elephant breeding program. That effort has proved so successful, she says, that the growing herd needed to be split. What better place to send that overflow than to Tucson, with its expanding elephant showcase?

"We were a great option," Basford says. "For the first time in any U.S. zoo, we are looking at a chance to bring a cohesive breeding herd—probably two females, youngsters and a male—to (our) zoo, which is probably the way things split off in nature, and certainly was our goal all along—to be able to do things in a more-natural way for the animals."

Though Cunningham supports the zoo's move, he also thought the shifting rationales deserved another hashing out. So he placed the issue on a Nov. 22 City Council study-session agenda.

The zoo responded by flying in a bunch of heavy-hitters, including celebrity expert Jeff Andrews, associate curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo.

Critics of the plan to send Connie away had no chance to speak before Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik cut off discussion with a motion to support the transfer. The move was unanimously approved.

Among those muzzled at the meeting was longtime animal-rights activist Jessica Shuman. She says the whole session devolved into zoo officials merely "reaffirming their views to their own colleagues." That was despite the fact that council members reportedly received 16,000 emails from the public about the elephants.

To critics such as Shuman, this whole saga doesn't pass the smell test—though it might deserve honors for sheer audacity.

"It's easy, when you get 16,000 emails, to write them off as an emotional plea," she says. "But the emotional plea is based on everything the general public knows about elephants, and it's based on science—the science we got from the experts who are now contradicting themselves."