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PAWS sanctuary a paradise for performing elephants

The African elephants at PAWS spend their days in a similar climate to their homelands in Southern Africa.
The African elephants at PAWS spend their days in a similar climate to their homelands in Southern Africa.
Copeland McKinley/KQED

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Deep in the foothills of California’s Gold Country, there is a peaceful home for animals that may seem a little out of place.  Located in San Andreas, the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) cares for elephants, big cats, bears and other wildlife with a history of performing for humans. For The California Report, Scott Shafer reports. 

The 2,300-acre Calaveras County sanctuary was started in 2000 by animal welfare advocates Ed Stewart and his late partner, Pat Derby, who used to work with animals in Hollywood.

Stewart, who lives on the property, dedicates most of his time to the animals at PAWS, particularly the elephants. On a hot afternoon we drive in his raised pickup truck to the African elephant enclosure, passing the black panther’s house and some rolling hills of golden grass along the way. We get out and walk onto a dirt path leading up to a large metal gate.

“Mara! Maraaaaa,” Stewart calls out in a loud, firm but excited voice, not unlike a doting father.

The female elephants in the enclosure vary in personality and background. There’s Mara, who has lived in private reserves most of her life, and takes on the role of matriarch, Lulu, a shy transplant from the San Francisco Zoo, and Maggie, described as a bossy princess, reigning over the best mud ponds.

While the African elephants (PAWS also houses Asian elephants) enjoy some peace and a drink from the water hose that Stewart provides for them, the reality isn’t lost on Stewart that the elephants come from years of abuse, neglect or institutions that were ill equipped to provide adequate space and care for such large mammals.

“A lot of elephants have been chained by their legs for 16 hours a night when they were younger on a concrete floor, and that just never goes away,” he says. 

Stewart mentions that PAWS is funded by donors. One of them, animal rights advocate Bob Barker, who was the longtime host of the TV show “The Price Is Right,” made a huge impact on Maggie’s life at PAWS. She was living in the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage and was not doing well in the cold climate and small space.

“I saw Maggie. She was real sick,” Stewart says. “They almost lost her a couple of times. They actually had to pick her up with a crane, just to keep her alive twice.”

Barker paid for Maggie's flight to the sanctuary on a military-style jumbo jet, and has had a stake in the lives of the elephants at PAWS since.

After the ladies have their fill of water, Stewart moves on to an enclosure up a slightly steep north-facing hill with a pond and an extremely large fence. It’s the turf of Nicolas, one of PAWS’ two bull elephants. Beyond the pond, there is also a large barn on the crest of the hill, where Nicolas gets his checkups and takes Jacuzzi baths. In the barn Nicolas shows a tusk for a worker who uses a blunt-end stick to gently touch him. As a reward Nicolas receives his favorite treat: bran.

“He usually makes a nice low rumble and it’s kind of nice for all of us to think that he is happy, for the moment anyway,” says Stewart.

Stewart explains that Nicolas came from a circus and was trained and forced to ride a tricycle at a very young age. Sometimes, like all wild animals, Nicolas can become aggressive. Part of what makes PAWS unique is its ability to house and provide care for a male elephant such as Nicolas.

But if it were up to Stewart, elephants wouldn’t be captive at all.

“We are one of the only types of businesses where we want to put ourselves out of business,” he says.

 “There is no state of the art keeping an animal in captivity. State of the art is Botswana, you know, it's not San Andreas and it's not San Francisco. We wish that the elephant-in-captivity problem would go away, and we can stop this at some point.”

For now, though, Stewart says, PAWS has room for more elephants.