At ARK 2000 — the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s 2,300-acre sanctuary in San Andreas — it’s a bit different.
“We’re not two-by-two,” said co-founder Ed Stewart. “We’re spay and neuter. Nothing breeds here.”
That’s because the elephants, tigers, lions and bears housed at the sanctuary, off Pool Station Road, are simply there to enjoy the remainder of their lives. All of PAWS animals have been retired or rescued from circuses, zoos and domestic captivity.
This year PAWS is celebrating its 30th anniversary since opening a 20-acre refuge in Galt.
“This is really why we built it — so animals who have been stressed their whole life can just relax,” Stewart said as he watched two lions lounge next to each other.
The sanctuary has four lions — three rescued from Bolivia after the country banned circus animals, and another named Sheba from Detroit.
“The police found her in a crackhouse, chained-up in the basement,” Stewart said.
Indeed, each of the animals at PAWS has a story.
Several years ago, PAWS rescued 39 tigers from a Southern California breeding facility. The owner was convicted of 56 counts of animal cruelty after investigators found dead tiger cubs
stored in a freezer and dozens of tiger carcasses strewn about his property.
Half of those rescued tigers — with names such as Jesus and Ginger — are still living at PAWS along with three tigers taken from a roadside breeding zoo in Ohio.
Across from the tiger and lion enclosures are seven black bears, including Ben — rescued from a roadside zoo in North Carolina.
“We flew him FedEx,” Stewart said, noting Ben’s entourage on the airplane included himself, a veterinarian and a lawyer from PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“PETA gets a bad rap, but they did a great job getting Ben away from that place,” he said.
Stewart said Ben, rescued in the summer of 2012, was kept on concrete in a 12-by-22-foot cage.
Ben now roams his two-acre enclosure, swimming and playing with a ball filled with popcorn and peanuts.
“He’s been about the best bear ever for adapting to a new place,” Stewart said.
PAWS also has a black leopard named Alexander who was originally found chained in a family’s backyard in Texas.
The real stars of the sanctuary are its 11 elephants — six African and five Asian.
PAWS was the country’s first elephant sanctuary. It’s the second largest elephant facility in the world next to one in Tennessee, Stewart said.
“It always seemed crazy to me that a little nonprofit like PAWS can have even bigger areas and nicer enclosures than some of the world’s leading zoos,” he said. “Compared to a zoo we have a miniscule budget.”
PAWS has an annual budget of $3 million to $4 million that includes everything from the cost of the animal’s food and veterinary care to insurance and maintenance of the grounds. The elephant enclosure features expensive steel fencing that is built 6 feet into the ground.
While PAWS is not open to the public, the organization occasionally hosts open houses and fundraisers to which the public is invited.
“We have a lot of really loyal donors who have been with us 20 to 30 years,” Stewart said.
Among those supporters is retired “The Price is Right” game show host Bob Barker. Other celebrity supporters over the years have included Amanda Blake, who played Miss Kitty Russell on the TV western “Gunsmoke,” in addition to former baseball player and manager Tony La Russa and Academy Award-winning actress Kim Basinger.
Last month, actress Kristin Bauer van Straten, who plays a vampire named Pam on the HBO series “True Blood,” visited the ARK 2000 sanctuary.
“Most of the celebrities that we know have contacted us,” Stewart said. “We don’t look for celebrities.”
In October, Barker paid to relocate three elephants from the Toronto Zoo to PAWS.
“I think he’s done more for animals than anybody on earth,” Stewart said.
The three African elephants from Toronto — Iringa, Toka and Thika — are enjoying life in their new 80-acre territory, Stewart said.
“They’re calm, usually,” he said. “Thika was just chasing turkeys. She just kind of trots after them.”
Inside their enclosure, Iringa, 45, ate branches from an oak tree as Toka, 44, walked down a hill behind her.
“Most elephants in captivity never do what she’s doing — they never have an opportunity to touch a tree or eat grass,” Stewart said as he watched the pair.
The three other African elephants are Lulu, from the San Francisco Zoo, Mara, from the San Jose Zoo, and Maggie, who was relocated from the Alaska Zoo via military jet with the help of the U.S. Air Force.
Asian elephants include Prince, Nicholas and Gypsy — who each performed in circuses — as well as Wanda from the Detroit Zoo. At age 56, Wanda is the oldest elephant at PAWS.
The other Asian elephant, Annie, was removed from the Milwaukee Zoo after video taped recordings surfaced of her being beaten in the mid-1990s. Annie is featured in the Lily Tomlin-narrated HBO documentary “An Apology to Elephants,” along with Stewart and longtime partner Pat Derby.
Derby, an animal trainer who worked on TV shows such as “Lassie” and “Flipper,” passed away last year from throat cancer.
Stewart and Derby met at an auto show in Cleveland in 1976. He was working part-time for Lincoln-Mercury and she was an animal trainer who brought the company’s live cougar and bobcat to the show.
Sharing an interest in animal welfare, they founded PAWS in 1984. A cougar from the Lincoln-Mercury car commercial, Christopher, was among nine of their first animals.
PAWS started out on 20 acres in Galt, and has grown to 30 acres. The nonprofit also has a 100-acre refuge in nearby Herald.
The ARK 2000 sanctuary was built that year, and the first elephants arrived in 2002.
As the first anniversary of Derby’s February death approaches, Stewart said he continues to take a hands-on approach — even cleaning elephant stalls himself.
“I started it with Pat,” he said. “How can I not keeping doing it?”
PAWS employs about 20 area residents, and the nonprofit tries to buy local products, such as hay and produce, to feed the animals, Stewart said.
“We try to spend as much as we can locally,” he said.
Stewart said some people have accused him of being an “animal rights extremist,” but he simply believes that animals shouldn’t be held captive.
“Our fight isn’t really with zoos, it’s with circuses and private ownership,” he said. “People who exploit animals for their own benefit.”