Thoughts on Purina Hall of Fame Winners 2011

On Monday, May 16th, the Purina Hall of Fame held its 43rd annual award for Canadian companion animals.  These animals have saved lives, either by physically rescuing people from dangerous situations, or by being there during a difficult period in a person’s life.  Here is a brief synopsis of their stories.

Moose, a Whippet from Trenton, ON, saved Alexis Sararas, a three year old girl.  Her neck was caught in a gate, so Moose alerted Alexis’ mother, who promptly freed her.

Two dogs from Alberta, an Australian cattle dog named Scooter, and a border collie named Missy used their herding abilities to save their “dog mom”, Glenda Mosher, from the neighbour’s ornery cow.  After the bad tempered cow knocked Glenda over, the dogs herded the cow away from her.  Their award was bittersweet, as Scooter died of old age recently.

The next two stories are about dogs that support people with special needs.  Stinky, of Manitoba’s Search and Rescue’s psychiatric therapy dog team, serves as a “loaner dog”, visiting soldiers who struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  As I mentioned in a previous article, animals can be a real life saver for those with PTSD and other anxiety disorders.  (If you are wondering where Stinky got her unusual name, it came from her unfortunate encounters with skunks!)

K’os, a French Neapolitan Mastiff in Peterborough, ON, saved fourteen year old Hunter Guindon from a seizure.  Hunter, who has cystic fibrosis and epilepsy, developed his first seizure at night.  When Hunter stopped breathing, due to a combination of his two conditions, K’os alerted the Hunter’s parents, who got him safely to the hospital.

All these stories truly illustrate the unbreakable bond between dogs and people.  But of all these inspiring stories, K’os and Hunter’s story felt the most personal to me.  Having relatives and friends with epilepsy or cystic fibrosis, I know how serious these conditions really are.

Unlike other service animals, seizure alerting is something that some dogs are born with the ability to do.  No one knows why this is, but it is something that we can be grateful for.

On a related note, I just read a really interesting book entitled My Dog Is a Genius,by David Taylor, DVM.  This book talks about how dogs perceive the world, gives tips on how to make your dog smarter, and contains amazing stories of smart dogs, many of whom are service animals.

Thanks to all the wonderful animals who share their lives with us.  Every animal that devotes oneself to someone is a true winner.


Update on the Toronto Zoo Elephants

Earlier this month, the Toronto Zoo decided to send their elephants somewhere else.  This was welcome news, considering that the Toronto Zoo’s elephant exhibit is less than one hectare.  The Toronto Zoo also decided, that, although it wouldn’t be their first choice, they would consider sending the elephants to a sanctuary if an AZA accredited zoo wasn’t available.  However, the Toronto Zoo is considering sending the elephants to the Granby Zoo near Montreal, according to a Toronto Star article published a few weeks ago.  That would completely defeat the purpose of sending the elephants to a warmer climate.  While the Granby zoo exhibit, according to the Star, is bigger, with a swimming pool (which Toronto does not have), that still doesn’t address the climate issue.  The Granby Zoo does have a geothermal heated barn, with a sand patio, but that still does not compare with the space that elephants get in a sanctuary.

Granby Zoo, along with Toronto Zoo, is one of only five Canadian zoos with an AZA accreditation.  I am not sure how Granby received accreditation with only two elephants, when the minimum amount allowed by AZA is three.  Either Granby Zoo is planning on getting more elephants, which isn’t the best idea in a Canadian climate, or the three elephant minimum is only an AZA guideline, which would make AZA accreditation somewhat of a joke.  Elephants are very social herd animals, so they get lonely with only one or two elephants in an enclosure.

Like Bob Barker, I feel that captive elephants should live in large enclosures that resemble their natural habitat as closely as possible.  From what I have read, the only Canadian zoo that may even come close to that is the African Lion Safari in Cambridge, Ontario, with a 300 hectare summer enclosure that they can venture into on warmer winter days.  However, the best places for elephants are obviously in places with warmer climates.

I would like people to continue to contact the Toronto Zoo, (and the Edmonton Valley Zoo) to move their elephants to warm sanctuaries down south.  I would encourage people to do the same for all the elephants living in small exhibits in cold climates.

Should Elephants Remain in Canada?

Should elephants live in zoos?  This question has been raised by animal welfare groups for quite a while now.  Elephants in the wild can live anywhere from 60 to occasionally 80 years old, but usually don’t live past middle age at the majority of zoos in colder climates.  There are a few main reasons for this.  In the winter, elephants have to stay indoors.  That means, for a couple of months, the elephants are standing on a hard floor.

At the Toronto Zoo, the elephant’s outdoor paddock has a hard dirt substrate, which isn’t much better for the elephant’s feet than their barn.

Hard surfaces and small enclosures put stress on the elephants, causing not only psychological distress for elephants, but physical ailments as well, such as foot infections and arthritis.

Most Canadian zoo enclosures, such as the ones in Toronto and Edmonton, are far too small to provide adequate exercise for the elephants.  And although I have never been to Bowmanville Zoo, east of Toronto, I am guessing that their elephant area may be too small as well, judging from the zoo map on their website, as well as the climate issue.

When elephants develop arthritis and foot problems, they are not only at risk of infection from standing on hard surfaces, but from falling as well.  Falling can be fatal for elephants, as their weight can crush them.

These concerns have led animal activist Bob Barker of The Price is Right, as well as organizations such as Zoocheck and PETA, to lobby both the Toronto Zoo and the Edmonton Valley Zoo to move their elephants to one of the two elephant sanctuaries in the southern USA.

While the Edmonton Valley Zoo has been reluctant to move Lucy, their Asian elephant, the Toronto Zoo will be meeting this Thursday to decide what to do with their three African elephants, Thika, Iringa, and Toka.  There is speculation that the Toronto Zoo wants to move the elephants down south, but they will likely go to another zoo that is accredited by the the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, of which the two elephant sanctuaries are not a member of.  AZA accredited zoos only give animals to other AZA accredited facilities.  While this policy makes sense when it protects animals from unscrupulous places such as roadside zoos and the pet trade, excluding the elephants from a legitimate sanctuary is just ludicrous.

The Toronto Zoo has proposed getting more elephants after enlarging the exhibit and elephant barn.  That would not only cost 16.5 million, (Which the zoo can not afford), but also futile, as the Toronto Zoo probably couldn’t fit a big enough paddock with the space that they have.

As a Toronto Zoo member, I would like everyone to contact the Toronto Zoo by tomorrow, asking them to send the elephants to a happy retirement at one of the elephant sanctuaries, or at least a warm climate zoo with a huge elephant area.

To contact the Toronto Zoo, e-mail this address:

To find out more about Tennessee’s Elephant Sanctuary, and to watch their elephants on “Elecam”, visit  The California sanctuary, Performing Animal Welfare Society website can be found here.

Mental Health & Pets Week: Safe Pet Options

Yesterday, I talked about mental health and autism service animals.  But service animals are not the only animals that support people with anxiety and other mental health challenges.  Pets are also wonderful companions to people with mental health challenges.

But what if someone with mental health challenges finds herself or himself suddenly needing to go to the hospital, or worse, ends up homeless?  Many people don’t seek help because they don’t want to leave pets behind.  Most homeless shelters and hospitals can’t accept pets because of allergies.  Recently though, some people have begun to address this problem through foster programs and pet friendly shelters.

In Toronto, a woman named Linda Chamberlain delayed getting treatment and a supportive apartment because she didn’t want to leave her cat, Geogio, behind.  When she finally moved into a pet friendly apartment, Chamberlain founded People and Pets, a pet fostering charity for people who need mental health support.

In Montreal, there is a pet friendly youth shelter called Dans la Rue (On the Street).  Many of the young people there come from troubled homes, and their pet is often the only family member they have.

Women who are fleeing abuse can find safe care for their pet through the Safe Pet program.  Run by the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, the Safe Pet program either boards the pet free of cost at a vet clinic for up to two weeks, or finds a foster or adoptive home for the pet.

Help support these important programs in whatever way you can.  Both people and their pets will thank you.

Mental Health & Pets Week: Service Animals

This week is both Mental Health Week and Pets Week.  This is perhaps fitting, as pets are very therapeutic for anyone, especially for people with mental health challenges.  There are even mental health service animals that give individuals the confidence to succeed in the world.  In Hamilton, ON, there is an organization called Encouraging Paws Service Dogs that trains dogs for various purposes.  Some of the dogs trained by EPSD accompany people with anxiety disorders, keeping them calm throughout the day.

While dogs are the most common animal employed as anxiety service animals, (mainly for people who are at risk of running off), other animals, such as cats and occasionally rabbits, have been employed by people with anxiety disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Dogs have also been trained to assist people with autism.  While autism is a neurological difference, and not a mental illness, many people with autism struggle with anxiety.  In Ontario, both Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are trained by Autism Dog Services, located in Cambridge, ON.  A documentary about Autism Dog Services is currently in production.  The documentary project is one of the many projects up for charity grants through Pepsi Refresh.

Other Canadian organizations that train autism service dogs include National Dog Services, Montreal based organization PACCK (who trains white German Shepherds), Alberta’s Dogs with Wings, and British Columbia’s Guide Dog Services.

Service animals are essential companions to people with certain types of special needs.  Consider helping out by donating to one of these organizations, become a puppy raiser, or tell people about this cause.