Two Sides of the Tale

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Posted October 1, 2021 | By Nick Steele
Special to the Ocala Gazette

At the end of a quiet, unpaved road in Williston is Two Tails Ranch, home to a menagerie of exotic animals, including seven adult elephants.

But beyond its physical location, it also sits at the crossroads of the past, present and future. The ranch is at the center of an ongoing debate over animal welfare and what constitutes exploitation and abuse.

Patricia Zerbini, the CEO of Two Tails Ranch Inc. and All About Elephants Inc., recently held her annual Elephant Appreciation Day event.

Two visits to the facility by Ocala Gazette journalists prompted questions about the nature of the facility.

By Any Other Name

There’s confusion surrounding the precise classification of the facility. Is it a sanctuary, animal rescue or for-profit entertainment venue?

Most reviews on the travel booking and review website TripAdvisor rate the facility as “excellent” or “very good.” Many are generous with their praise.

“This was an experience of a lifetime,” one traveler gushed. “We got to not only learn about elephants but got to have an ‘extreme encounter’ with them. This included quality time bathing, riding and taking photos with them.”

But the attraction feel of Two Tails also prompts negative sentiments and experiences.

“This place does not rescue elephants. She purchased them all, and her family runs a business off the profits from the poor animals,” according to another review.

A third stated, “I visited this facility today with a friend and noticed several red flags during our visit that set off so many alarm bells. This is not a genuine rescue or animal welfare organization. Do your research before you visit.”

But it’s not only visitors who have identified the ranch as a sanctuary or a rescue. Various media outlets have described it as such.

When asked if the facility was a rescue, Zerbini quickly countered with a question of her own.

“No. Why should any elephant in the United States need to be rescued?”

She has been described as gruff and admits she’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

“I tell it like it is,” she said. “It’s probably a little bit too harsh for some people.”

She calls Two Tails a privately owned elephant facility. Zerbini believes when a business like hers is not called a circus or zoo, “Then [people think] it’s a rescue. Where the confusion comes in for people is they think of them as wild animals. They’re not,” she said.

“All the elephants we have in this country came over here when they were this high,” she continued, gesturing to the height of a baby elephant. “They (elephants) don’t know where they came from. They just know that people have been taking care of them for the last 60, 70 years. I use the Chihuahua dog for example because everybody can relate. Chihuahua dogs come from the Mexican deserts. Let’s just go gather everybody’s pet Chihuahua and go turn it loose in the Mexican desert and see how it all turns out.”

Zerbini believes elephant rescues and sanctuaries are “built by the animal rights groups, and they’re basically targeting private owners, people who don’t have a lot of money,” and “stealing their elephants to put in their sanctuaries.”

If she feels threatened, it’s because her family has been working with captive exotic animals for nine generations and operates Tarzan Zerbini Circus. The circus travels to various states to stage their show. Visitors may also not realize that some of the elephants who live at Two Tails also perform in the family’s circus.

Aside from performing with Tarzan Zerbini, several of the elephants at Two Tails are also routinely rented out for circuses, weddings, parties, parades and other events. They perform various tricks, sometimes dressed in elaborate costumes.

“It’s good money for us,” Zerbini explained. “We do Indian weddings. We do circuses. We do fairs. We do parades.”

View to a Thrill

She shares a story of an incident that occurred after an appearance she made at a local circus where animal rights protesters, who she deems “terrorists,” were present.

“Yeah, I’ll go out there and make extra money for the ranch. I’ll leave here in the morning, do two shows over there and come back at night,” she explains. “The following week, this lady came up here, and she was standing here feeding the elephant. She goes, ‘Oh, we went to the circus last week, and it was so sad. They all were so mistreated.’ And I was like, where was that? She said Orlando at such and such. I said, well, this elephant here…how does she look in comparison? Happier? ‘So much,’ she said. Well, this is the same elephant you saw over there. And she was like, ‘You’re kidding.’ I said this is exactly the same elephant that I took over there.”

Zerbini doesn’t feel the woman’s negative impression of the elephant while at the circus was due to the animal doing tricks among all the pomp and circumstance of a theatrical show. Instead, she feels it was the protestors who put a negative connotation on the performance.

“I tell people all the time, the longest living, healthiest animals I have ever gotten in here to board have been circus elephants. When I’ve been overseas, the healthiest, best-looking elephants I’ve seen are in work camps. You can’t just take any elephant to be a circus elephant or a ride. It takes a certain elephant to go into an arena with 10,000 people and lights and music and stuff—that bond between that trainer and that animal has to be like this because you’re setting the mode for it. If that elephant doesn’t trust you 110%, it’s not going to do any… it’s not going to go into that building full of people screaming and yelling and lights and music and live bands and spotlights running around, you know?”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) disagrees and has advocated against circuses for years, including Two Tails and Tarzan Zerbini Circus.

“Two Tails is nothing more than a roadside zoo that exploits elephants for-profit and sends them off to be used in the circus. Elephants don’t do tricks or give rides because they want to. They do them because they have been chained and beaten behind the scenes, and they are afraid of being punished if they don’t,” explains Rachel Mathews, director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement for the PETA Foundation. “The public is calling for an end to this abuse. That is why Ringling Bros. is closed. There are only two roadside zoos in America that still use elephants for rides, and one of them is Two Tails Ranch. Three of the elephants at Two Tails are still used in the circus: Marie, Patty, and Shell or Shelly.”

PETA has successfully challenged the issuance of Endangered Species Act permits to circuses, including Tarzan Zerbini.

“No U.S. circus has been allowed to tour internationally with elephants, tigers, or other protected animals in half a decade.”

Curtain Up

Elephants first arrived in North America more than 200 years ago as part of traveling shows known as menageries, consisting of captive exotic animals trained to perform tricks to entertain eager audiences.

According to The New York Times, “When the Philadelphia Zoo, the nation’s first, opened in 1874, its curators bought an elephant from a traveling circus and chained it to a tree, delighting children and adults who had never seen such an animal up close.”

The shows eventually reached a peak after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses merged and began billing themselves as the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

Over the years, documented cases of abuse and substandard living conditions changed how circuses and zoos operated. Pressure from animal rights advocates and legal actions contributed to many zoos closing their elephant exhibits.

Even Ringling Bros. decided to retire their trademark elephants in 2016. The once-iconic attraction shuttered the business the following year, acknowledging that declining attendance combined with high operating costs and changing public tastes contributed to the decision.

Controversial training techniques, such as using bullhooks (also called guides) to train elephants at circuses and zoos, have long been an issue with animal rights groups.

“When you go out to Two Tails Ranch, you will see the trainer, who is directly with the elephant, will have a long rod in their hand. The rod usually has a pointy end with a hook that looks like a fireplace poker,” Mathews explains. “That’s a bullhook. Anybody who sees that wouldn’t normally think anything of it unless they have been trained to fear it. That’s what happens with elephants. Elephants are taught to fear the bullhook. They are beaten and poked and jabbed with it until eventually, all they need to do is see that in the trainer’s hand and they know to obey.”

The bullhook has been used for hundreds of years to punish elephants and make them comply during training. It is used on the sensitive areas of young elephants, including behind the ears where the skin is paper-thin. It’s also used around the eyes, on the feet, on the trunk and around the mouth. The use of a bullhook is said to psychologically and emotionally harm elephants.

Visitors to Two Tails have complained about the use of bullhooks, but Zerbini is still using the device. She often conceals the hook in her hand, although recent videos from a tour showed her using it with the point side directed near an elephant.

In 2019, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in conservation, education, science and recreation, updated its elephant standards to phase out the use of bullhooks. The AZA has been the primary accrediting body for zoos and aquariums for more than 40 years. U.S. agencies such as OSHA and the USDA consider AZA standards as the “national” standard, and they refer to AZA standards when evaluating institutions. AZA’s scientifically based standards examine the zoo or aquarium’s entire operation, including animal welfare, veterinary care, conservation, education, guest services, physical facilities and safety.

Two Tails is accredited by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), a non-profit, membership-based, accrediting organization dedicated to responsible wildlife management, conservation and education. The ZAA has received criticism for what some call a “more relaxed approach” and “flexible” requirements for animal care. ZAA’s policies on elephant care, in particular, have proven controversial. ZAA allows for free contact as opposed to AZA’s standard of protected contact, where a sturdy barrier separates handlers and elephants at all times. The Humane Society of the United States has stated, “A number of ZAA-accredited facilities are nothing more than privately-run menageries that breed and sell exotic animals, furthering the pet trade and contributing to the problem of unqualified individuals possessing dangerous wild animals.”

Patricia Zerbini of Two Tails Ranch, right, guides Shelly, an Asian Elephant, as Secrina Holloway of Fairfield, CT, takes a ride with her daughter in Williston on Sept. 3. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Show and Tell

Around 2009, Zerbini began to offer “educational tours” by appointment to the public. The group tours can be as large as 100 people. In addition to the seven elephants, the facility is also home to a camel, a zebra, an ostrich, a family of ring-tailed lemurs and a few other animals.

During a recent tour, the group assembled under a pavilion where Zerbini talked about the elephants at the facility, offered statistics and general information. Two or three elephants, in separate paddocks, were visible from the pavilion.

The elephants mostly swayed back and forth in place. The information offered by Zerbini reflected her beliefs, personal insights and experiences and occasionally veered into political commentary.

For instance, Zerbini stated elephants would be extinct in five to 10 years. It’s a claim she’s been making for years. Zerbini generally cites experts as her source.

Asian and African elephants are critically threatened and could face extinction. However, organizations that track elephant populations or published reports do not cite the five to 10-year timeline.

Zerbini is no fan of some animal welfare organizations. A sign near the ticket window reads, “If you care and love animals…Do not support:” and lists the Humane Society of The United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), among others. Some organizations are vocal critics and have issued negative reports on Two Tails Ranch and Tarzan Zerbini Circus.

Although the ranch is expansive, visitors are limited to a small area directly accessible from where Zerbini directs participants to park.

After her presentation, Zerbini had an elephant named Luke paint for the crowd. The elephant took a loaded paintbrush from Zerbini and made brushstrokes on blank paper on an easel.

Zerbini herself will tell you, elephants have poor eyesight, and their eyes are on the side of their heads, so they have better peripheral vision. They are also color blind. Guests, however, were delighted by the display. Luke’s paintings are for sale.

Up Close and Personal

Elephants and other exotic animals captivate us because they represent some of the magic left in the natural world, and humans have an understandable desire to connect with them.

Zerbini offers add-ons for a fee to satisfy most levels of connection, including an up-close photo op, a hand-feeding experience and elephant rides. At $200 per person, an extreme encounter allows visitors to bathe an elephant, pet and interact with that elephant, and take more photos/selfies.

Some use the extreme encounter to celebrate significant events or even get engaged. The elephant can even deliver the ring box or a gift to the participants.

“Wildlife tourism isn’t new, but social media is setting the industry ablaze, turning encounters with exotic animals into photo-driven bucket-list toppers,” “National Geographic’s” “Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism” investigation concluded. “The wildlife tourism industry caters to people’s love of animals but often seeks to maximize profits by exploiting animals from birth to death. The industry’s economy depends largely on people believing that the animals they’re paying to watch or ride or feed are having fun too.”

Zerbini admits the elephants don’t enjoy the encounters.

“They don’t like people touching them,” she said. “They don’t like to be rubbed on and pet, but that’s what people want to do; that’s what they really want…It doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t comprehend petting.”

She said elephants don’t like their trunk or ears touched, even though many photos and videos posted from visits to the ranch show participants doing just that.

“It’s their nose. They smell with it. People just want to grab it all the time.” she said, adding touching an elephant’s trunk, its ears or tail is a sign of aggression.

“It’s not a good thing,” she said.

That said, in a video uploaded to YouTube by Mariah Milano, a vlogger and former adult film actress, detailing a typical extreme encounter, Milano boasts, “Today what I’m going to do is… I’m going to ride an elephant, pet an elephant, kiss an elephant, feed an elephant. I’m going to give an elephant a bath. Are you ready? I’m so excited!”

The video shows her sitting on Luke’s leg as he bows down in a circus pose. It also features Luke painting and performing tricks. In the video, Milano feeds, rides and washes another elephant named Patty.

“I’m about to go kiss Patty again. Mwah!” Milano says in the video, accompanied by an air kiss and a hair flip.

Encounters like the ones offered at Two Tails are ones that visitors will pay big bucks for “to fulfill their lifelong dream,” Jen Rose Smith reported in CNN’s The wild world of America’s private zoos. “But according to some activists and scientists, those interactions with exotic species are a threat to animal rights, public safety and even global health.”

Health and Safety

Deaths, attacks and health risks involving the Two Tails elephants have been documented. The incidents have occurred both on the ranch and as part of circus appearances.

At one time, Two Tails leased parts of the ranch to Ringling Bros. to house some of their elephants, as well as their breeding center.

Among the incidents on the ranch was the death of world-famous elephant trainer Axel Gautier, who was stomped to death in May 1993 while visiting the Ringling Bros. breeding operation. In 2005, elephants from Tarzan Zerbini fatally trampled their primary trainer, Pierre Spenle, as he loaded them into a truck for transport. In 2013, Diane Bedard, a guest of Zerbini, sustained life-threatening injuries when an elephant grabbed her through the bars of his enclosure. Bedard was not part of a tour.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service cited and fined Zerbini for failing to maintain safe barriers between the animals and visitors.

According to an incident report dated Sept. 18, 2013, the incident was not reported to the police or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by Zerbini. PETA reported the incident weeks after it happened.

When Zerbini’s colleague Colin Fraser, who was at the ranch at the time of the attack, was questioned about the incident, Fraser said it went unreported because “they were afraid of bad publicity.”

Over the years, there have been multiple documented cases of tuberculosis (TB) in elephants at both the leased Ringling Bros. area and among the Two Tails elephants, notably Luke, who has tested positive repeatedly.

TB is a potentially fatal infectious disease that is transmitted between species and also from animals to humans. According to a 2021 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Tuberculosis (TB), caused by the human pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is a recognized disease in human-managed and wild Asian elephants and African elephants.”

TB can lie undetected in elephants and people. Healthy-looking elephants can be infected. Testing captive elephants in the U.S. for tuberculosis has not been required since 2015.

According to National Geographic, an estimated 5% to 6% of the nearly 400 elephants in U.S. zoos and circuses carry TB.

“As the coronavirus has heightened public awareness about disease transmission between animals and humans, some experts are warning about the risks of tuberculosis in captive U.S. elephants,” the publication reported in 2020. “Although COVID-19 preoccupies us today, 1.5 million people died of tuberculosis globally in 2018, according to the World Health Organization. That makes it the leading infectious cause of death.”

TB can be spread through direct contact, including petting, feeding or touching animals, but airborne transmission is also possible.

A Mammoth Endeavor

Zebrini supports hunting elephants on game farms in their natural habitats and breeding elephants at facilities like Two Tails.

But since the goal is not to replenish the wild herds, critics wonder if the goal isn’t to protect a controversial form of entertainment currently under harsh criticism.

Meanwhile, facilities like Two Tails operate legally and don’t lack clientele.

Two Tails will continue to face challenges justifying their right to provide the public an opportunity to interact with an endangered animal up close instead of providing a sanctuary setting where the humans can observe from a respectful distance.

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