Aging Elephants Retire to California

Winky and Wanda, two aging, arthritic elephants, will spend their retirement in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, away from the cramped, cold Detroit Zoo (search).

After months of wrangling, Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan reached an agreement with two other zoos and an accreditation group to send Winky and Wanda to California's Performing Animal Welfare Society (search) sanctuary for a milder climate and more space.

Wanda, 46, has arthritis and 51-year-old Winky has foot problems. Both have surpassed the average 45-year life expectancy for Asian elephants in captivity in North America.

Kagan's decision to give up the elephants primarily on ethical grounds and send them to a sanctuary in a warm climate drew praise from the public and animal welfare groups.

However, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (search) — the Detroit Zoo's accrediting organization — decided Wanda and Winky should go to the Columbus Zoo (search). Kagan opposed that recommendation, saying the conditions and weather there would be scarcely different from Detroit's.

Complicating the dispute was the fact that Wanda was on long-term loan to Detroit from the San Antonio Zoo, which supported the AZA's recommendation.

A break in the impasse came when a test indicated that Wanda either had the endotheliotropic herpes virus or had the antibodies to it. The disease would not be detrimental to her health but could be fatal to young elephants exposed to it.

"Since the Columbus Zoo has an active elephant breeding program and (a) 9-month-old calf, we could not accept Wanda," Gerald Borin, executive director of the Ohio zoo, said in a statement released Friday by the AZA.

Winky and Wanda will be moved to the PAWS sanctuary about two hours east of San Francisco as soon as the weather permits. Of its 2,300 acres, about 100 are set aside for elephants. The sanctuary currently has six.

Five U.S. zoos have closed elephant exhibits in recent years amid public pressure following animal deaths or alleged mistreatment. A small animal sanctuary in Georgia surrendered its elephants earlier this year, partly because of space and cost concerns.