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Santa Ana Zoo ends 25-year-old elephant ride attraction

December 16, 2011 |  5:19 pm

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The Santa Ana Zoo announced Friday that it has ended its 25-year-old elephant ride attraction 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 was based on policy changes adopted in September by the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the Santa Ana Zoo.

Santa Ana Zoo was one of the last two zoos in the United States encouraging visitor-elephant interactions.

Under the new standards, zookeepers at zoos accredited by the association are not to share the same space with elephants without some form of protective barrier between them and the animals.

The San Diego Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, which did away with elephant rides two decades ago, already have installed 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 a routine five-year reaccreditation 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 the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urged Santa Ana city officials to ban the rides operated by a private company, Have Trunk Will Travel Inc., a Perris-based operation whose trained pachyderms are rented out for fairs and corporate parties and appear on television commercials and films.

Kari Johnson, co-owner of Have Trunk Will Travel, which has been certified by the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums since 1993, agreed. “I’m very sad,” she said. “It’s not a good decision for the elephants or the people of Santa Ana.”

Customers paid $5 to ride the 8,000-pound Asian elephants on weekends from October to May 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 that travel long distances in herds –- 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., which is the only other zoo in the country accredited by the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums still offering elephant rides, was unavailable for comment. But, Winders said: “We have campaigned against Six Flags in the past and will continue to put pressure on them.”

In the meantime, Yamaguchi is taking a hard look at possible new uses for the circular enclosure, which currently offers $5 camel rides on weekends. Eventually, he acknowledged, “it may be transformed into another animal exhibit.”

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Photo: Santa Ana Zoo visitors watch the elephant ride on Nov. 13, 2010. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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