WINSTON, Ore. (AP) -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants an Oregon wildlife park to stop using elephants to wash cars.
An Oct. 22 letter from the animal rights group to Wildlife Safari calls the elephant car wash a "gimmick that does nothing to foster respect for endangered species." The letter urges executive director Dan Van Slyke to discontinue the spring-and-summer attraction.
Lisa Wathne, a Seattle-based PETA spokeswoman and the letter's author, said the practice is potentially dangerous to the public, and the elephants are forced to wash cars under the threat of pain inflicted by trainers. The organization is particularly concerned with the use of a traditional elephant training tool known as an ankus or bullhook. The device is a rod with a metal hook and spike at one end.
"It's the threat of the pain that those bullhooks will cause that makes the elephants do what they're told," Wathne said.
Wildlife Safari officials contend the attraction is safe, and the elephants are trained using positive reinforcement. In an interview with the News-Review newspaper of Roseburg, general curator Dan Brands said the bullhooks are used as an extension of the trainers' arms.
"The terminology we use is 'guides,'" Brands said. "They are not used in an abusive way."
Brand said trainers modified a behavior the elephants naturally do by offering them encouragement and treats such as carrots or yams.
"These are 2-ton animals," he said. "You can't force them to do anything they wouldn't want to do."
The park has been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which requires zoos to find a way to intellectually stimulate their elephants.
Association spokesman Steve Feldman acknowledged the elephant car wash is an unorthodox interpretation of the requirement, but didn't see the activity as detrimental.
Information from: The News-Review, http://www.nrtoday.com
Copyright 2009 The AP.