The Santa Ana Zoo is one of only a handful in the nation that still offer elephant rides.
For more than 25 years, children — and some grown-ups — have turned out by the hundreds to ride on the back of an 8,000-pound Asian elephant as it trudges around a shaded, circular enclosure near Monkey Row.?
Although others have bowed to pressure from animal welfare advocates who oppose once-popular elephant rides as cruel to the animals and dangerous to the public, zookeepers in Santa Ana are rushing to their defense.
Animal activists set their sights on the zoo last year and have intensified their opposition since the ride opened for the season last month. Since Oct. 8, they have picketed outside the city zoo on weekends and urged visitors to boycott the old-school attraction.
Last week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals raised the stakes by enlisting stage performer Charo, who wrote to Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, asking him to ban the rides. The group contends that the rides are not possible without cruel training methods.
"I have spent my career entertaining people, but there is nothing remotely entertaining about hurting elephants," Charo wrote.
Zoo Director Kent Yamaguchi brushed aside activists' claims that the rides are abusive or unsafe and said they will continue because he is confident the animals are well cared for and that care-givers use the strictest safety guidelines and most humane training methods. If there were any evidence of mistreatment, he said, he would end the rides immediately.
Besides, he said, the rides are such an educational experience that once riders step down from the creatures' massive shoulders, they often become their biggest admirers and advocates.
"You can't ride these animals without being struck by their power and their majesty," Yamaguchi said. "The main reason we have the ride is to educate people about what these animals are all about … and that's why zoos are around: to be able to give people that close relationship with the animals."
The small zoo's stance on the rides makes it a rare holdout at a time when most zoos shun human-elephant interaction.
The San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, for instance, did away with its elephant rides in 1990, when it adopted a "protected contact" training method that bars anyone — even zookeepers — from being in the same enclosure as an elephant.
The Los Angeles Zoo, which eliminated elephant rides more than 20 years ago, follows the same policy, as does the Oakland Zoo.
The Santa Ana Zoo, perhaps best known for its mandate to house at least 50 monkeys at all times, doesn't have its own live-in elephants. Instead, it hires them from Have Trunk Will Travel, a Perris-based operation whose trained elephants are rented out for fairs and corporate parties and appear in television commercials and films.
The $5 ride is offered on weekends from October to May, when the elephants are on their off-season from giving rides on the busy county fair circuit.
Opponents say the ride exploits the elephants, puts visitors at risk of being trampled and clashes with the zoo's mission of animal care and conservation.
"By providing elephant rides, the Santa Ana Zoo is acting more like a circus than an accredited zoo," said Lisa Wathne, PETA's captive exotic animal specialist.
Elephants submit to being ridden, Wathne said, only because of the threat of being prodded with a bull hook, a training tool she likens to a fireplace poker.
Yamaguchi says carrying passengers is healthy exercise and mental stimulation for the elephants. "It's like going to the gym" for the enormous creatures. He prefers to call the training hooks by the Sanskrit-derived term ankus, meaning "goad," and compares them to dog collars.
"You can't put a big collar and a leash on an elephant, but you can use this little tool," he said. "If you need to tap them with it, you do."
When people interact with animals, there is always a chance something could go wrong, Yamaguchi said, "I've weighed the risks of the elephant ride and I believe they are safe."
The Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the Santa Ana Zoo, does not prohibit elephant rides, but its policy strongly discourages visitor-elephant interactions and asks member zoos to discontinue the rides for public safety reasons.
Association spokesman Steve Feldman dismissed PETA activists as not credible and said Have Trunk Will Travel is certified by the association and meets its "high standards for elephant care and welfare."
"At the Santa Ana Zoo … and at every AZA-accredited or -certified facility that cares for elephants, highly trained professionals take care of elephants every day," he said. "They are the real experts. And, no one loves elephants more than they do."
Have Trunk Will Travel and its troupe of Asian elephants don't shy away from controversy.