We had the opportunity to spend a glorious day at ARK 2000, which is one of the facilities of a rather unusual organization called the Performing Animal Welfare Society.
Through the generosity of friends, we found ourselves with a pair of tickets to one of PAWS's annual fund-raisers, the "Elephant Grape Stomp." This event is sort of an open house to visit the sanctuary, which is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, about 2 hours from our house.
During the event, we were able to visit three parts of the sanctuary:
- The cats and bears area, which holds Siberian Tigers, African Lions, and American Black Bears, as well as at least one leopard (who was feeling unsocial so we didn't see her).
- Bull Mountain, where PAWS has a facility for two male Asian Elephants (held separately, but adjacently)
- The Asian and African Elephant compound, where about 10 female elephants are living in two separate areas.
At all three locations, booths were set up with information, local restaurants were serving delicious food, and local wineries (from the thriving Murphy's wine region) were pouring scrumptious Sierra Nevada wines.
Visiting ARK 2000 is sort of an unusual experience.
It is not a zoo, and the animals are not there to entertain you.
And it's not a breeding facility; they aren't trying to produce more of these animals here.
I would say it's more like a senior citizen facility for animals who have been taken from rather difficult circumstances and given a dramatically more humane situation in which to live out their lives.
Still, it was very nice and peaceful. The weather was superb, and we had all the time we wanted to stand quietly and watch the animals as they relaxed, contentedly, in their space.
Several of the staff were on hand, including the primary elephant keeper and the primary bear keeper, to answer questions and help explain what we were seeing and why.
And some of the sights were indeed unusual, such as the three custom transport containers that they use to move the elephants long distances (most recently used to bring three elephants from Toronto to California). This is not the sort of item you can get at your local hardware store!
For example, keeping bull elephants is rather different than keeping female elephants. The extraordinary strength and aggressive tendencies of the bull elephants means that they must be located in a particular situation, with a pen of fantastic strength. In some of the pictures, you can see, I think, the difference in the containment fences for the male elephant as opposed to those for the females. (Of course, the females are plenty strong enough; apparently they like to uproot the oak trees just for fun, and so the facility has built massive protective cages around some of the trees to try to keep the ladies from clearing them out entirely.)
I think the highlight, for me, were the 4 Siberian Tigers, absolutely majestic animals, who were all together in one pen and were particularly active, bounding around their space, playing together, alertly aware of everything and everyone that was around them.
There's lots of information about PAWS on their website. It's not obvious what is going to come of the organization now that its founder, Pat Derby, has passed on. Still, from all evidence they are still going strong, and hopefully they will find a new generation to continue their excellent work.