SCRANTON, Pa. -- Scranton is a town that never forgets its elephants.
It is a town where waitresses and shopkeepers, teachers and nuns, business executives and salesmen fondly recall years of family picnics at the now-closed zoo at Nay Aug Park to visit a succession of elephants -- Queenie, Tillie (and her pal, Joshua the donkey), Princess Penny, and, most recently, Toni.
And it's Toni, on loan to the National Zoological Park in Washington, that has residents here worried now. Toni's caretakers would like to keep her permanently -- and possibly breed her. That request has caused such a stir in this northeast Pennsylvania city that a public hearing has been scheduled for tomorrow night to discuss the matter. The City Planning Commission then will make a recommendation to Mayor James Connors, who only wants "what's best for Toni."
"Toni was bought with money donated by the children [of Scranton], so she's like a member of the family," explains Jean Lewis, a 55-year-old grandmother who remembers visiting the zoo when a child could climb aboard a streetcar to get there.
Animal rights activists argue that Toni is too old to be bred or to travel the necessary miles -- possibly across the country -- to meet a suitor. They claim she's 29; the National Zoo says records put her age at 26.
"Except for one exception, no animal over 25 who hasn't been bred previously in captivity has ever conceived," contends Helen Jones, of the Scranton-based International Society for Animal Rights (ISAR).
Toni supporters want to make sure the Asian elephant stays happy, healthy, and -- if necessary -- virginal. "I think it would cruel to do it [breed her], if health-wise and age-wise it would endanger her," says Mrs. Lewis, who sells stuffed animals, elephants included, from a cart at the Viewmont Mall.
But Scranton Times columnist Joseph X. Flannery can't understand all the fuss.
"They talk about this as though Toni is going to L.A. to have her trunk amputated," says Mr. Flannery. "They're asking her to go to L.A. to have a love affair and a baby. Presumably she wouldn't be put upon by either one. I say, 'Go for it, Toni.' "
For years in Scranton, Toni lived in a pen no bigger than 25 feet by 28 feet. She paced back and forth on a dirt-sprinkled concrete slab in a zoo that eventually had to be shut down because of age and conditions. Animal rights activists and others protested the zoo closing and filed a lawsuit to block the city from lending Toni to the National Zoo. But, in the fall of 1989, she was loaded on a moving van and with a police escort, off she went.
Toni arrived in Washington a shy, sullen and, occasionally, short-tempered stranger.
"She didn't really know who she was, that she was an elephant," says Jim Connors, Scranton's first-term mayor who resembles Mr. Rogers more than an urban politician.
In the years since, she has gained at least 600 pounds, developed a softer, steel-colored complexion and apparently found herself. She has friends -- three other female elephants -- good food and health care, a place to roam and a steady stream of admirers.
"We've proven we can do a terrific job of managing and handling Toni," says John R. Lehnhardt, collections manager at the National Zoo, which spends about $25,000 a year caring for her.
"We would like to have the ability to say what Toni's future is. Part of
that future, as far as I'm concerned, is she have the opportunity to lead a normal life, and part of that includes reproducing."
Mr. Lehnhardt disputes the claim that Toni is too old to mate. Plus, he adds, "if you have an endangered species and you want to save that species, you can't do it unless you breed them."
At present the city has the right to return Toni to Scranton but concedes that it has neither the money or the facilities to house her properly. The National Zoo, on the other hand, wants a final decision on Toni's future.
Since January, ISAR and Ms. Jones, a 67-year-old former New York public relations executive, have been campaigning to persuade the city to sign a binding agreement with the National Zoo that would keep Toni settled in Washington but single.
The society ran ads in the local newspaper and urged Scrantonians to clip a coupon and "Vote for Toni's Social Security." They circulated a petition at the local mall and appealed to Scranton's youngest hearts -- its children.
"All of us figured she was happy at the National Zoo," 11-year-old Matt Patchcoski says of his fifth-grade friends who signed the petition. "She has a lot of room to move around. She's adjusted to the weather . . . and she has a lot of elephant friends."
The society, housed along with 50 cats and four dogs in a former beauty salon in a suburb north of Scranton, has received support from nearly 2,000 Scranton residents.
Among supporters are Esther Elefant, a teacher at a Scranton parochial school for girls. "She's old. She's comfortable where she is. Why torment her?" she asked.
Eileen Bowen, mother of four grown children and owner of a recently deceased parakeet, feels differently. Why not "bring a few more little elephants around?" asks Mrs. Bowen from her table at Stirna's, a Scranton landmark known for its German pork and sauerkraut and other homemade specials.
Toni's former Scranton zoo-keeper, George Lowry, worries Toni may not be up to a match.
After talking with two elephant experts, Mr. Lowry concluded that because Toni's left front leg doesn't bend at the joint, "it may be very hard on her to be bred by a bull elephant, because they are extra rough on female elephants."
The state of Toni's biological clock is not the only thing worrying the people of Scranton.
The Republican mayor is running for re-election and the Irish are gearing up for the St. Patrick's Day parade. Residents on the northeast side of town are fighting a proposed plant that would convert coal residue to energy. The city's less fortunate are combing through the Friends of the Poor's outdoor clothing racks.
A coal, iron and steel powerhouse until 1945, Scranton has evolved into a mid-size city of professional and service industries, home to a minor league baseball team and the country's oldest Roman Catholic women's college. It has a one-department-store downtown awaiting completion of a new, million-dollar mall.
Despite its Democratic leanings, this city has had a 70-year love affair with elephants, "a colossal pet" in the words of one longtime resident, a symbol of Scranton's big heart.
Since 1924, the local newspaper has heralded the arrival of each floppy-eared tenant of Nay Aug Park and championed their causes, including prodding the old Works Progress Administration to finance construction of a new elephant pen in 1937. And when an aged and arthritic Tillie had to be euthanized in 1971, "the agonizing decision" was also chronicled, as well as the method: injections of curare, then nicotine, and finally, a bullet to the head.
Tillie's burial in an abandoned strip mine was memorialized in the Pulitzer prize-winning play, "That Championship Season," written by Scranton native Jason Miller.
Throughout the years, after each fund-raising drive to buy a new elephant, the donations by name and amount were listed in the newspaper. Almost always, it was the children of Scranton who gave lots. And last week, Mr. Connors turned to the grandchildren of those children for advice about Toni's future.
With a chorus of young voices urging that Toni remain in Washington, Mr. Connors turned to matters of the heart: "Let's talk about whether Toni should get married."
"Ask Toni's parents first," offered Frank Alicea.
Jamie Klivitas patiently waited to be called on. Then the mayor nodded to her. "It's Toni's life," said Jamie. "Why can't she do what she wants?"