News

Workin’ at the car wash



Leslie Montgomery

On 600 acres of savannah-like land an hour south of Eugene, Wildlife Safari is doing new and innovative things in an attempt at conservation through education. The newest addition to the wide range of activities offered at the drive-through park is an elephant car wash, where elephants do just that: wash visitors’ cars. “Guaranteed not to get your car clean!” laughed Dinah Wilson, one of Wildlife Safari’s full-time elephant trainers. 

For a $20 donation, George, Tiki, and Alice take turns interacting with guests, many of whom have never seen an elephant up close before.

“You’d be amazed,” explained elephant trainer Katie Alayan. “People start crying when they see an elephant for the first time. It can have a powerful impact.”

The towering gray frames rise high above even the trucks that come through the car wash, and powerful blasts of water leaving their trunks can be heard echoing through the trees.

The car wash involves two of the elephants sucking water into their long, slender trunks before showering it upon waiting vehicles as the guests inside squeal with delight. Today, Tiki and Alice, both 39, are at work. George, 28, relaxes in a nearby shaded area. After the initial rinse, the elephants grip a small sponge in their snouts and scrub the windows.

During downtime, the trainers work to keep the elephants cool, spraying water from the hose directly into their mouths and hosing down the animals large grey backsides.

Wilson compared the intelligence of an elephant to that of a preschool-aged child. Because of this, elephants require constant stimulation. “Part of our job is teaching them new things not to let them get bored,” she said.

The trainers have devised creative ways to keep elephants busy. They can paint, all three can play “Happy Birthday” on the harmonica, and Tiki can play the drums.

Positive reinforcement is crucial to the elephants’ development, explained Wilson. If they remain active, elephants can reach the age of 80, maybe even older. The trainers take them on long walks over the hills on the property, allowing them to roam through the wilderness and even push down trees. “They’re like a well trained dog,” explained Wilson, “They’ll walk right beside you.”

The Fourth of July festivities at Wildlife Safari culminated on Saturday with a celebration of George’s 28th birthday. Part of the park’s “Elephantastic Week,” guests were invited to take part in a unique event. The staff designed the elephant’s cake, made of carrots and fruit (people had a separate cake). After Tiki and Alice played “Happy Birthday” on their harmonicas, each elephant got to unwrap a personal watermelon in front of the crowd.

“Seeing an elephant up close is so different than seeing them on television,” Alayan said. “People are going to remember that.”

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