Elephants aren’t a species native to the 209, but there are eight of the majestic animals living in the San Andreas hills who have received a new lease on life thanks to the Performing Animal Welfare Society. For the past 35 years, the nonprofit sanctuary has rescued elephants, bears and big cats around the world from the cages, chains and harsh confinement often found in captivity, instead giving them a place to live as nature intended.
Originally founded in Galt in 1984 by former Hollywood animal trainer Pat Derby and her partner Ed Stewart, PAWS eventually expanded from its first, 30-acre facility to a new, 2,300-acre sanctuary in San Andreas known as the ARK 2000, which now serves as a place where abandoned, abused or retired performing animals and victims of the exotic animal trade can live in peace and dignity. After Derby passed away in 2013, Stewart has continued to run PAWS with passion and care.
“Pat had been in the animal business for about 15 years before I met her, but she didn’t really want to be in that industry anymore. We cared for animals leftover from her days of working and rescuing, but we never planned a sanctuary,” Stewart said. “As soon as you get your first elephant, whether you think you’re going to have a sanctuary or not, you have a sanctuary.”
Between its three sanctuaries in California, PAWS has rescued hundreds of captive wild animals in an effort to both deter the public from supporting live animal shows as well as educate them about their dangers.
Stewart explained that animals used for entertainment, whether it be photo ops, circus performances or rides through the jungle, are often abused, with handlers using methods of intimidation and fear that can include inflicting pain in order to make the wild animals obey.
“We were probably the first organization to try and let people know what animals go through when they entertain us, especially circus animals. It’s kind of like a magic show — people want you to think the animals are having fun when they perform, but I think over our 35 years we’ve been able to give people a different perspective,” Stewart said. “If there’s an elephant that performs, there’s somebody that has a bull hook.”
While every elephant at ARK 2000 has its own story, most were rescued from zoos, either old enough to “retire” or retrieved from unsuitable climates. There are Thika and Toka, who came from the Toronto Zoo, and Lulu, who arrived at the sanctuary from the San Francisco Zoo. Mara is an African Elephant whose mother was killed by the government when she was just a calf, resulting in a life being shipped from game farms to zoos to, ultimately, a “elephant orphanage” in Florida, where PAWS was able to rescue her.
The most interesting story, however, may be that of Maggie. When the Alaska Zoo board of directors voted in 2007 to move her to a warmer climate, she was put on a U.S. Air Force C-17 and flown 2,000 miles to California — a flight paid for by television’s Bob Barker, who has helped many elephants find a home at ARK 2000.
It looks exactly like where they came from, but it’s still captivity. You can try to give them something better, but you can never give them what they should have.”Ed Stewart
“Bob Barker found out about a lot of the elephants we have before we even knew about them,” Stewart said. “He helped build enclosures and get everything ready, and it’s up to us to get the ball rolling and make sure we take care of them.”
In addition to the eight elephants at ARK 2000, there are 14 tigers, six bears, one lioness and one black leopard living in enclosures within the sanctuary’s rolling hills. California’s climate is nearly identical to that of Africa, Stewart said, providing a habitat where the animals can live a life similar to the one they would have lived in the wild.
“It looks exactly like where they came from, but it’s still captivity,” Stewart said. “You can try to give them something better, but you can never give them what they should have.”
While PAWS primary focus is the rescue and care of captive animals, they have also worked to end the root causes: unrestricted breeding of exotic and indigenous wild species, private ownership of these animals and their use for entertainment. PAWS has provided extensive support to multiple bills prohibiting the use of wild animals in various shows, and also co-sponsored the successful effort to prohibit bull hooks in California.
Through advocation and education, Stewart believes PAWS has helped to change many peoples’ minds about wild animals in captivity.
“I think most people believe circus animals shouldn’t exist anymore,” Stewart said. “They shouldn’t tie tigers up in the backs of trucks and put them in cages, and elephants shouldn’t be chained up in the back of a circus truck.
“Eventually, when there are no more elephants to rescue, no tigers left on the side of the road, we’ll just pull up the fences and this will turn back into natural habitat.”
The ARK 2000 is closed to the public, but several times a year PAWS invites the community to see the animals. Upcoming events include PAWS’ 35th Anniversary Open House on April 20, and an additional Open House on May 11. Tickets to these events, as well as a list of additional events and animal “adoption” opportunities can be found at www.pawsweb.org.