An elephantine change

Times Staff Writer

There comes a day when even the most popular of shows has to close. “Oklahoma!,” “Cats,” even “The Lion King” -- each dazzled Broadway for years and then departed.

And so the elephant show at the Wild Animal Park, an attraction at Tembo Stadium since 1977, the most popular show in park history, will close Sunday.

The puppet and bird shows will remain, but the five Asian elephants who star in the elephant show are off to a new gig.


Ranchipur, Sunita, Cookie, Mary and Cha-Cha are set to be transported down the freeway to the San Diego Zoo to join three elephants there in a new exhibit.

The combined herd will share 2.5 acres -- part of a $44-million project called Elephant Odyssey that will cover seven acres and include tree sloths, jaguars, lions, birds, tapirs, camels, turtles, pronghorn sheep and life-size replicas of prehistoric beasts.

The relocation is set for late winter or early spring. So why is the elephant show being closed so far in advance?

Because elephants are not quick to adapt to change.

The long lead time will allow the five to get used to the crate that will transport them -- one by one -- for the 25-mile trip to the zoo.

It bears remembering that when his trainers decided to add Ranchipur, a 12,000-pound male, to the elephant show, it took two years to convince him to make his debut.

“Elephants do what they want to do,” said Brittany Archer, Ranchipur’s lead trainer and one of the narrators of the show.

To make the trip to the zoo bearable for Ranchipur, Archer will accompany him down Interstate 15 and California 163. She’s also transferring her job to the zoo, the park’s parent organization, to continue working with Ranchipur and the others.

On Friday, patrons were unaware that they were witnessing one of the last performances of Ranchipur and Cha-Cha. All five elephants perform, but usually not more than two at a time.

As they have for years, well-tested jokes brought a respectable amount of laughter from several hundred patrons in attendance. For many families, the elephant show was a must-see, propelled by urging from their children.

“She kept saying ‘I have to see the elephants, I have to see the elephants,’ ” Melody Finwald, a tourist from Northern California, said as she pointed to her 4-year-old daughter.

Archer explained to the crowd that although the average female Asian elephant weighs between 7,000 and 8,000 pounds, Cha-Cha is a slim 5,000 even though she out-eats Ranchipur.

“That’s right ladies,” Archer said. “She’s the girl we love to hate: She eats and eats and never gains a pound.”

Trainer Brian Greco, putting Cha-Cha through some gentle lifting and standing paces, suggested she was a bit woozy. Archer explained that she and Cha-Cha had some wine at lunch.

“You know where you take an elephant wine-tasting?” she asked. “Tuscany.”

And so it went, as it has twice daily for decades.

Some gentle fun was provided along with facts about Asian elephants: Each tooth weighs 5 pounds, an elephant’s trunk has more than 1,000 muscles, and an elephant pregnancy lasts 22 months but labor is rarely longer than 20 minutes. And elephants are endangered in the wild.

The show, like elephant training itself, has changed over the years. Trainer and elephant are always separated by a metal fence. All reinforcement is the positive kind, mostly food treats or scratches behind a giant ear.

The days of circus-like behaviors are gone. No more do the elephants go to Burbank to be on “The Tonight Show.”

The elephants no longer “dance” to music. Mostly they lift and carry logs on command, or put their feet forward for inspection -- which also has practical applications. Elephants are vulnerable to foot infections, so keepers need to make daily inspections.

At their new habitat at the San Diego Zoo, there will be no elephant show. The Asian enclosure at the Wild Animal Park will be given over to the park’s 11 African elephants, doubling their roaming space.

Randy Rieches, the park’s curator of mammals, sees the move as “win-win”: a new space at the zoo for the Asian elephants, an expanded one at the park for the African elephants.

“A lot of us are not big on the idea of elephants performing in shows,” Greco said. “We like to give our elephants every chance to just be elephants.”