Rancho Santa Fe residents connect with rescued elephants


Rancho Santa Fe residents Lynda and Richard Kerr expressed their love for elephants by donating their time and treats in the form of juicy pumpkins late last year at the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s (PAWS) .

PAWS, a 2,300-acre sanctuary in San Andreas, Northern California, was founded by the late Pat Derby and her partner Ed Stewart in 1984 to provide a refuge for abused and neglected captive wildlife from the entertainment industry.

The Kerrs have always been animal advocates — they regard their dogs as family members and support many animal causes. Of all the animals, elephants stood out for them: at 4,000 to 10,000 pounds as full grown adults they are the world’s largest land mammal yet so socially sophisticated in many ways, Lynda Kerr said.

“In nature they remain together in family groups for generations. They exhibit compassion for one another, mourn their dead, have complex language and family structures, demonstrate complicated problem-solving ability, and live the lifespan of up to 70 years (in the wild). And yet, sadly, they are likely the most abused animal in history,” Kerr said. “Entire herds continue to be massacred for their ivory throughout Africa. Babies are separated from their mothers in violent ways and shipped around the world to supply zoos and circuses where they live miserable, unnatural lives.”

Kerr said elephants age rapidly in confinement and are considered old at 30.

“There are many aging elephants exhibited in zoos and circuses, some living in deplorable conditions, throughout the U.S. and around the world who are in need of retirement or rescue,” Kerr said.

PAWS currently provides a peaceful, natural habitat for eight elephants. They have African female elephants Thika, age 35, and Toka, age 45, from the Toronto Zoo; Lulu, age 48, from the San Francisco Zoo; Maggie, age 35, from the Alaska Zoo; and Mara, age 35, from a private owner in Florida.

PAWS also cares for Gypsy, an Asian female elephant age 48, a former circus elephant and Asian bull elephants, also former circus performers Nicholas, age 22, and Prince, age 28.

Since its inception, PAWS has cared for a total of 16 elephants. At PAWS the elephants live life on their own terms with acres of land to roam, heated barns, a lake and two swimming pools.

At PAWS the elephants are not on display. PAWS is a true sanctuary, Kerr said, accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and does not breed, sell or trade, and is not open to the public. However, PAWS does host several open houses and educational tours each year.

“When we heard of the PAWS Sanctuary, we were immediately interested in learning more. We were delighted when we were invited by Ed Stewart to tour the facility,” Kerr said. “But we could not arrive empty handed. So what do you bring eight elephants when you come to visit?”

Kerr had an idea.

Elephants are vegetarians and eat an enormous amount of food. Driving by the local pumpkin patch, they wondered, how about pumpkins?

“After Halloween, everyone is happy to get rid of their leftover pumpkins, especially the pumpkin patch,” Kerr said. “So we loaded the back of our SUV with pumpkins and headed for the hills of San Andreas, seven hours north of San Diego.”

Upon arrival at PAWS, the Kerrs set out to deliver the pumpkins to the elephants. Stewart would call each elephant’s name and from the distance, an elephant would appear.

“With long, graceful strides, they each approached the fence and gently reached out, and with nimble trunks took the pumpkin directly from Ed’s hand,” Kerr said. “Some stepped on them first while others popped them directly into their giant mouths. All wanted more!”

Kerr hopes that more people who are as passionate about these animals as she and her husband are will do their part to spread awareness about PAWS and help the organization. People can learn about donations and how to help by visiting or by calling (916) 539-5305.