The Santa Ana Zoo has decided to end its 25-year-old elephant ride attraction in order to comply with changes in animal care and safety guidelines designed to protect zookeepers and trainers from being harmed by the powerful and moody land giants.
The decision, announced Friday, was based on policy changes adopted in September by the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the Santa Ana Zoo, one of the last two in the United States to encourage visitor-elephant interaction.
Under the new standards, zookeepers at AZA-accredited zoos are not to share the same space with elephants without some form of protective barrier.
The San Diego Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, which did away with elephant rides two decades ago, already had gates and metal barriers at new elephant exhibits to ensure minimal contact with handlers.
“Times change,” said Santa Ana Zoo Director Kent Yamaguchi, whose 20-acre facility is due for its five-year re-accreditation review. “But I still think elephant rides are an amazing way for people to learn about the animals through hands-on contact.
“There are going to be a lot of people saddened by this news,” he added. “Hundreds of people a day — most of them children —rode the elephants that they had come to know by name: Rosy, Tai and Kitty.”
A year ago, animal welfare advocates led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urged Santa Ana city officials to ban the rides operated by Have Trunk Will Travel Inc., a Perris-based company whose trained pachyderms are rented out for fairs and corporate parties and appear in TV commercials and films.
“I’m very sad,” said Kari Johnson, co-owner of Have Trunk Will Travel, which has been certified by the AZA since 1993. “It’s not a good decision for the elephants or the people of Santa Ana.”
On weekends from October to May, customers paid $5 to ride the 8,000-pound Asian elephants around a shady circular enclosure. Critics said the operation put visitors at risk of being trampled, clashed with the zoo’s mission of animal care and conservation and exploited the highly intelligent social animals, who in the wild travel in herds for long distances — a situation that exists nowhere in the nation for captive elephants.
“We are thrilled with this decision and applaud the city for making it,” said Delcianna Winders, PETA’s director of captive animal law enforcement. “When the AZA concludes that elephants pose too much of a safety risk for even trained handlers to share the same space with them, certainly no child or parent should be subjected to that grave danger.”
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., the only other AZA-accredited zoo in the country still offering elephant rides, was unavailable for comment. Said Winders: “We have campaigned against Six Flags in the past and will continue to put pressure on them.”
Yamaguchi is taking a hard look at possible new uses for the Santa Ana Zoo’s circular enclosure, which offers $5 camel rides on weekends. Eventually, he said, “it may be transformed into another animal exhibit.”