Scranton's elephant controversy becomes tug of war over Toni


SCRANTON, Pa. -- Scrantonians have spoken: It seems no one wants this city's elephant in exile, Toni, to reproduce, even if big-city zoo keepers think it's best for her.

A public hearing Tuesday night, jammed with local fans of the elephant, was called to help city officials decide what to do about the controversy over the elephant.

Scranton owns Toni but sent her to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., after the local zoo closed four years ago.

National Zoo officials, who pay Toni's $25,000 annual expenses, want her to live a normal life -- and that includes breeding. The zoo needs Scranton's permission to place her in a national breeding program, which would require her to be moved. Many residents think the mating and the travel required to

mate would be too disruptive for her.

Scranton Mayor Jim Connors wanted citizen input before he makes a decision about Toni. Judging by the chorus of opposition at the hearing, held by the city's Planning Commission, many citizens oppose the idea.

Commission Chairman Peter Noto said the panel will review the testimony and make a recommendation to the mayor "in due time."

If that recommendation is based solely on the testimony presented at the hearing, the city likely will reject the National Zoo's request. But city officials will have to balance public sentiment with practicality -- this city of about 81,000 may own Toni, but it doesn't have the resources to take her back.

With the notable exception of John Lehnhardt, collection manager at the National Zoo, no one who spoke at the hearing was in favor of the breeding plan.

All of the speakers said Toni should remain in Washington, but only if the National Zoo will agree that she is never bred.

Wearing buttons urging, "Let Our Toni Stay, Not Be Sent Away," activists told of the horrors some elephants have endured in being transported to other zoos for mating. One woman said the Portland Zoo had chained a female elephant while she was being mated.

Mr. Lehnhardt insisted no such thing would be allowed at his zoo.

Noting that Toni "didn't even know she was an elephant" when she first arrived at the zoo in the fall of 1989, he said the zoo has the best interests of the animal in mind and would not do anything to endanger her.

"We are capable of making decisions, and we are the only ones assuming fiscal responsibility for Toni," Mr. Lehnhardt said. "We have a long-term commitment to Toni regardless of what the city of Scranton does."

But he stressed that if Scranton does not trust the zoo's judgment, he would recommend that the city "make a decision about where she spends her time."

Said George Lowry, Scranton's animal control officer, "If they [the National Zoo] say, 'It's our way or the highway,' what are we going to do with that elephant?"

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