SAN ANDREAS - Winky, a 9,500-pound Asian elephant that was a featured attraction for 36 years at the Sacramento Zoo, savors her retirement with seven other elephants on a sprawling range in the oak-studded hills of California's Gold Country.
Her arrival at the Ark 2000 sanctuary of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, was arranged due to Winky's aching feet and pointed acknowledgments by two zoos that their artificial elephant habitats were ill-equipped to meet the needs of the massive animals.
"Our small, 1940s exhibit was substandard by anyone's standard," said Leslie Field, lead animal keeper at the Sacramento Zoo, which decided to close its elephant exhibit in 1991. "Our desire was for Winky to have elephant friends and to go to another place."
But Winky's next stop, the Detroit Zoo, also closed its exhibit, declaring in 2004 that Winky and another elephant, Wanda, suffered from chronic arthritis as well as psychological problems. The zoo said its 1-acre habitat wasn't helping either elephant.
Now a California state lawmaker is pushing legislation that could force some of the state's leading zoos to give up their elephant populations if they don't significantly expand acreage for their popular pachyderms.
The so-called Elephant Protection Act introduced by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, would require zoos to set aside at least 5 acres of usable habitat for every three elephants, plus an additional half-acre for each additional elephant.
The measure, AB 3027, would also ban the use of steel-tipped bullhooks and chains to herd or restrain the animals.
"I simply want the treatment of elephants to improve," said Levine, who held a recent news conference in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Zoo to announce the bill. "If zoos build these (expanded) compounds because it is the right thing to do, fine. If they can't and they send them to elephant sanctuaries, that's fine, too. But these highly intelligent and highly social creatures should live in a way that doesn't promote suffering."
The bill is drawing protests from the Los Angles Zoo and the San Diego Zoo and its Wild Animal Park. The zoos say they have invested or are investing millions of dollars to upgrade their elephant facilities.
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association is charging that the bill sets arbitrary acreage requirements for zoo elephants that are unsupported by science.
"We believe that these changes are another attempt by animal rights activists to effectively ban elephants from zoos today and then ban other species, such as giraffes, lions and penguins, from zoos tomorrow," the organization said in a statement.
Only one California zoo - the Oakland Zoo - would meet the standards of the legislation. It houses four elephants on 6 acres, including a 3.4-acre exhibit, and doesn't use bullhooks or chains.
"This bill doesn't take away people's right to see the animals," said Nicole G. Paquette, general counsel for the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, which pushed for the legislation. "It is not banning them in zoos or circuses. It's saying: Treat them humanely, break the chains, get rid of the bullhooks and give these animals the space they deserve."
At the Ark 2000 sanctuary, situated on 2,300 acres of oak woodlands and grassy hills in Calaveras County, the PAWS group houses three African elephants in one 80-acre enclosure and five older, less mobile Asian elephants in a 35-acre pen.
Five of the elephants are from zoos, including Lulu, a 38-year-old African elephant who was relocated after the San Francisco Zoo closed its elephant exhibit last year. Two others are former circus elephants, and one came from a private owner.
Pat Derby, the PAWS founder who oversees Ark 2000, said their relocation to the sanctuary reflects an increasing concern by animal rights activists and some scientists that the elephants, which can walk up to 30 miles in a day, need far more room than most zoos can provide.
"They are incredible walking machines," said Derby, a former animal trainer for television programs, including "Gunsmoke," "Lassie" and "Flipper."
At the Los Angeles Zoo, home to three elephants, officials are seeking a $13.9 million expansion to create a Pachyderm Forest that would increase the zoo's elephant habitat from just more than a half-acre to 3 acres.
Though the acreage would fall short of the standards sought in Levine's bill, zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs said the plan carefully considers the needs of the zoo's elephants, including one diagnosed with a chronic foot infection and an arthritic condition.
San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park has eight African elephants in a 3-acre exhibit and six Asian elephants in a 2.5-acre habitat. The San Diego Zoo houses one African elephant and three Asian elephants in a 1-acre exhibit.
The Zoological Society of San Diego, which runs the two zoos, said the Elephant Protection Act would "compromise the capability of animal care science professionals" to decide what is best for the elephants."
"Zoos have a critical and increasing conservation role in helping manage sustainable populations of endangered species and should not be limited in their ability to play this role," the society's statement read.
But Derby said she hopes the Levine bill will pressure zoos - as well as circuses that transport often-chained elephants in cramped conditions - "to raise the bar and force better standards."
She said many elephants that came to the sanctuary suffered physical problems from having to stand, and sleep, on concrete and move about in limited, unnatural spaces.
But she said she would prefer that other elephants remain in zoos - with improved facilities and care. She said she isn't campaigning for more pachyderms.
"We just did Winky's and Wanda's feet," she said. "I'm not clamoring to get any more."
First published: Friday, March 31, 2006