Tai the asian elephant has probably been through more uncomfortable situations than being surrounded by a soap bubble for 15 seconds: For instance, the time she was painted to look like wallpaper and posed in a warehouse as part of an art installation.
Thus, there’s a certain level of hyperbole to the cries of “Abuse!” that have greeted plans for the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana to feature Tai in a demonstration that will prove that soap bubbles can be made big enough to surround a very large object -- in this case, an elephant.
In her work for a Perris operation called Have Trunk Will Travel Inc., 39-year-old Tai has experienced only slightly fewer incarnations than Barbie. There’s TV Starlet Tai, Corporate Party Tai, Wedding Tai, maybe even Bar Mitzvah Tai (some of her hats closely resemble yarmulkes). Like those stunts, and like circuses and many a zoo enclosure, the bubble gig is not the right way to act toward elephants, and we’d like to see it canceled. But it’s low on the pachyderm mistreatment list.
The cries of outrage are a reflection of the laudable respect that we as a society have for elephants, renowned for their intelligence and complex social lives. In recent years, we’ve learned more about the needs of wild animals and have become less likely to view them as existing for our own use and enjoyment. Tai was born in Asia, but her owners, who acquired her when she was 9, said they do not know whether she was born wild or in captivity. In summer fair season, she spends what sounds like an uncomfortable few days a week on display, possible grounds for animal rights complaints. In winter, she spends most of her time with other elephants at her 10-acre ranch, where she might be far happier than her counterparts at zoos.
Either way, it’s unlikely that Tai’s idea of a fun day is lumbering into a truck for the long freeway trip to a Santa Ana bubble demonstration. What’s most disturbing is that the Discovery Science Center, a hands-on museum for children, is behind this idea. It’s educational, a spokesman said. But children can learn about giant bubbles by seeing them surround an animatronic dinosaur. Only a sadly outdated sort of education would impart the message that it’s appropriate to use a magnificent endangered animal as a prop in a kiddie show.