Los Angeles — For elephants to fly, you have to do more than load trunks on a plane.
Pat Derby, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, has been working for two years to get three 10,000-pound elephants in the air. The elephants are scheduled to take off on Aug. 2 in what could be a million-dollar move.
The African elephants, Iringa, 42, Toka, 41, and Thika, 31, are being retired from the Toronto Zoo and moved to PAWS’ 2,300-acre sanctuary in San Andreas.
To get the elephants ready to fly, the animals had to undergo crate and noise training. A Russian cargo jet and two fleets of trucks had to be rented; pilots, drivers and crews hired; crates built and fitted for each elephant; hydraulic gates reinstalled at the sanctuary; and barn space cleared.
The amount of red tape rivaled only the green involved, but former game show host and animal activist Bob Barker is paying the bill, expected to be between $750,000 and $1 million.
Zookeepers have been teaching the animals to walk in and out of their travel crates, finished in January. “We rattle the crates and make all kinds of sounds so they are used to noise,” Derby said, because “there are no test flights.”
Iringa and Toka do have past plane experience — they were flown to Toronto from Mozambique 37 years ago. Would an elephant forget?
“It would be the way we remember some gut feelings,” Joyce Poole, an elephant behaviorist and co-founder of ElephantVoices, said in a phone interview from Norway. “They are used to going in and out of cages and being in small confined spaces. Otherwise, getting back into a truck could bring back some scary feelings. Obviously, they were captured and taken from their families and had some pretty terrifying experiences, but they’ve been captive for a long time. I think they’ll be fine with it.”
The elephants fit snugly in their crates and will be tethered so they don’t get hurt if they hit ruts in the road or turbulence in the air, Derby said. The Russian cargo plane is bigger than a C-17 so will fit all three elephants easily, along with keepers from Toronto and crews from PAWS.
There may not be on-board movies for the pachyderms, but there will be carrots and other treats in case they get the munchies.