He stood behind a steel fence with a sly look on his face and his back legs crossed, entertaining hundreds who took a shuttle to Bull Mountain at the ARK 2000 sanctuary to see the Asian bull elephant.
A short while later, he was seen nonchalantly tossing hay into his mouth or taking a drink of water from his handler, poured to him through a hose pointed at his trunk.
Nicholas’ personality was on full display during the Elephant Grape Stomp on April 15 at the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s sanctuary in San Andreas. That’s probably what won the 22-year-old elephant the “Mr. Tuskany” award over seven competitors.
The award was ceremonial. Attendees and visitors to the nonprofit’s website paid $5 donations to vote for their favorite elephant. Kim Gardner, the director of programs with PAWS, said Nicholas won by 25 votes over his next closest competitor. She said 720 votes were cast in all.
The event was a fundraiser for the organization. Gardner said the grape stomp is a play on the famous fall classic staged in Murphys. The festivities didn’t feature grapes that were actually stomped, but it was a sellout that attracted more than 500 attendees and raised around $30,000.
The proceeds come back to care for the elephants, bears, tigers, lions and a black leopard under PAW’s care. Gardner said costs range between $60,000 and $70,000 per year to care for an elephant. Expenses consist of food, veterinary care and shelter for the animals.
“We don’t receive any government funding,” she said. “All support comes from individuals. We get modest grants each year, but funds come primarily from individuals.”
The Afternoon in TUSKany was also an opportunity to open the sanctuary that is usually closed to the public. ARK 2000 is normally inaccessible to outsiders so that the animals that were once employed in various parts of the entertainment industry – many of which were abused and mistreated – get a sense of the wild.
“We try to give them back as much of a sense of wilderness as we can,” Gardner said. “That means not having as many people around.”
Nicholas arrived in PAWS’ care 10 years ago, after he was rescued from the Hawthorn Corp. that leased the pachyderm to circuses and fairs to ride a tricycle. He was often held in a small cage and chained for up to 19 or 20 hours a day.
“Since he has been with us, he has been able to make his own decisions,” Gardner said. “He’s been free to be an elephant.”
Gardner said the elephant was so outgoing April 15 because he was near his primary handler, Brian Busta. Busta, the ARK 2000 manager and a senior elephant keeper, was seen tossing food and giving water to Nicholas while answering questions from attendees.
“He really loves Brian,” Gardner said. “Sure, Brian was giving him treats in things. He does like to be where…