Pachyderm plan is in bubble trouble

Times Staff Writer

Tai the elephant is no stranger to fame.

The 39-year-old female has a long resume: TV commercials, corporate parties and 20 movie credits.

“She has such a reputation that people ask for her by name,” said Kari Johnson, a co-owner of Have Trunk Will Travel. The company operates a ranch in Perris for nine endangered Asian elephants, which often work in show business. Tai is the most famous, she said.

But as with human celebrity, with the spotlight sometimes comes controversy.


Bubble artist Fan Yang plans to briefly envelop the 8,800-pound pachyderm in a giant soapy bubble at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana on Tuesday as part of the center’s annual Bubblefest. The planned performance has outraged the animal rights community.

It’s a situation reminiscent of 2006, when British artist Banksy painted an elephant a red and gold pattern to blend into a wallpaper background for an installation in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse, illustrating the phrase “an elephant in the room” and angering animal activists.

The city’s animal services department ordered that the paint be washed off and replaced with children’s face paint.

That elephant was Tai too.

Tai will star in next week’s five- to 10-second stunt, in which Yang will attempt to set a world record for the largest living land mammal in a bubble.

The plan has renewed debate over what constitutes animal cruelty and led to a stern rebuke from L.A. Animal Services General Manager Ed Boks.

“It’s cruelty in the worst possible form in that it says it’s not only acceptable, it’s an art form,” Boks said. Though he has no say over the Santa Ana event, Boks said, “I think that’s the wrong message to be sending.”

The science center is defending the show as educational, adding that the stunt has been performed a number of times on humans.

“We don’t think it’s cruelty,” said Leslie Perovich, vice president of marketing for the center. “It’s a great opportunity to get people excited about bubbles and science.”

A letter from 11 current and former zoo professionals this week objected to the science center showing an endangered species in a “trivial and sensationalist manner,” calling it a “Vegas-style sideshow.” The San Rafael-based animal rights group In Defense of Animals also has come out against the event.

As for the safety of showcasing an elephant in an open setting in front of children and families, Yang said there was little chance that Tai would be spooked by the orb because it wouldn’t even touch her as she stood on a platform.

Tai responds to verbal commands of the two trainers that accompany her, Johnson said, adding that her firm has a safety plan approved by the American Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums.

“This is not something that’s going to be scary or strange for us,” she said. “We’ve built over 30 years of trust with her.”

The stunt has raised one other question: Do Tai’s owners pursue contentious gigs?

No, Johnson said.

“She just does the higher-profile work,” Johnson said. “If a CEO wanted to ride into his meeting on an elephant to make a big impression,” Tai would be the one to do it, she said.

“We don’t always know when it’s going to be controversial.”