The Elephant in the Room Is at a Car Wash in Oregon

On 600 acres of savannah-like land an hour south of Eugene, Ore., Wildlife Safari is doing 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 Katie Alayan, an elephant trainer. "People start crying when they see an elephant for the first time. It can have a powerful impact."

The car wash consists of two of the elephants sucking water into their long, slender trunks before showering it upon waiting vehicles as the guests inside squeal with delight.

The pachyderms' towering gray frames rise high above even the trucks that come through, and strong blasts of water from their trunks can be heard echoing through the trees.

On a recent day, Tiki and Alice, both 39 years old, are at work, while 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. Tiki, the smaller of the two girls, is very enthusiastic, spraying her water and wielding her sponge without much thought.

Alice, however, is very deliberate. She sticks her snout right on the window — and then sprays water in all directions.

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

Wilson compared the intelligence of an elephant to that of a preschool-aged child. Because of their mental capacity, elephants require constant stimulation.

"Part of our job is teaching them new things not to let them get bored," she said.

One of the many tricks the trainers have taught Alice, George and Tiki is the ability to paint.

Alice demonstrates, as a trainer places a rectangular sponge in her snout with a dab of red paint on the end. She hesitates, perhaps imagining the picture before putting paint to canvas. When she begins to paint, her strokes seem planned.

The resulting picture is a circular wheel of red, blue and yellow.

"Beautiful," the trainer says as she tosses a chunk of sweet potato inside of Alice's awaiting mouth. "Good girl, Alice!"

All three elephants can even 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 the elephants 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, which was made of carrots and fruit (there was a separate people's cake), and 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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