[CORRECTION:] Santa Ana Zoo Defends Elephant Rides as County and Animal Rights Groups Seethe

CORRECTION: Residents cannot get into Santa Ana Zoo free this weekend, that promotion was last weekend. We regret the error.

If you happen to pass by the elephants at Santa Ana Zoo, you might want to think twice before going on a ride.

That's because the County of Orange has a rule: Don't touch the elephants.

This is nothing new–Orange County's Animal Care division has had a no-touching rule and other elephant-minded regulations for more than 30 years. You can't get more explicit than this: “At no time shall (an exhibitor allow that) there be public contact with the elephants.”

You cannot ride, pet, or be within 15 feet of an elephant, a rule county health officials say will help prevent humans from contracting a disease.

But Santa Ana's Zoo Manager Kent Yamaguchi, in an email to the Weekly, defends the elephant rides for the very opposite reason: he believes humans should touch elephants.

“Why do I allow elephant rides?” Yamaguchi asks. “Touch. Physical contact with another creature is the strongest ways to make a connection with that animal. You could learn about an elephant by watching a DVD or reading a book but you can't really grasp its size, elegance and power until you have seen it first hand. Riding on the back of the elephant allows you to feel its muscles move and see how much it enjoys working with people. It's the first hand contact that inspires our guests to truly care about elephants and want to preserve them.”

The no-touching rule stemmed out of the concern that elephants could carry tuberculosis. Ryan Drabek, director of Orange County Animal Care, has said, “It's protection for the public, but also protection for the animals while they're in our jurisdiction.”

Meanwhile, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Orange County People for Animals (OCPA) have protested, planned future protests and spoken out about the zoo's elephant rides, which they consider to be animal cruelty.

“By offering elephant rides,” says PETA director Debbie Leahy, “the Santa Ana Zoo is acting more like a circus than an accredited zoo.”

Yamaguchi is diplomatic in his response: “While PETA has some compelling reasons why elephants should not be ridden, I have found that some of their claims are not true or misleading. My job as director is to ensure that all of the animals under the zoo's care are properly maintained and cared for. If anything was not right it is my responsibility. Because of that I would never allow a practice that knowingly hurt an animal.”

He disagrees that elephant rides are detrimental to elephants or human visitors.

“I have worked with the elephant company for over 20 years and have seen first-hand how they care for their elephants,” Yamaguchi explains in his email, which notes the contractor, Have Trunk Will Travel (HTWT) , does not, for instance, use bullhooks to intimidate their animals like other elephant handlers.

Saying he has never witnessed any evidence of cruelty by HTWT, Yamaguchi claims, “They treat their elephants like they are part of their family. Some of my staff have even worked with the elephants and lived with them while they were on the road and no one has ever reported any staff abuse toward the elephants. That is why I believe that HTWT does not do the things purported by PETA.”

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