Animal stunts: circus delights, and a sober note of concern. `We give all our heart and soul to the animals, that is why they can be so playful and funny,' says bear trainer Vladislav Zolkin of the Moscow Circus, on tour of the US. In their grace, beauty, and dexterity, kneeling elephants and leaping tigers suspend our belief about animals' abilities. But at least one critic wonders how high a price animals pay for our entertainment.

`THERE'S nothing educational, stimulating, or uplifting about a bear riding a bicycle,'' says Pat Derby, a former Hollywood animal trainer and stunt woman. ``When you train an animal to do something unnatural, you fall to the decadent level of the Romans who cheered the gladiators. ``If we need to confine exotic animals at all, I believe they should be left untrained to enjoy loving, daily interactions with their keepers.''

Many people see Ms. Derby's position as extreme. After all, it would mean the end of trained animals in movies, theme parks, and zoos. And when animal training is done in a responsible atmosphere, it is generally seen as a fun-loving, even wholesome activity.

Nevertheless, she is leading a moral crusade, which, among other activities, has involved her in a state investigation of animal abuse at the San Diego Zoo which probes the fine line between animal discipline and abuse.

Derby's strong views come after more than two decades of performing-animal experience: everything from cleaning cages and bottle-feeding newborn tigers to training animals for such TV shows as ``Daktari,'' ``Flipper,'' and ``Gentle Ben.'' She and her husband produced the first Lincoln-Mercury ``Sign of the Cat'' commercial. Her animals were also used in Honda, Kal Kan, and Purina ads and appeared in dozens of films, including Walt Disney's ``The Love Bug,'' plus television series such as ``The Waltons,'' ``Gunsmoke,'' and ``Lassie.''

Four years ago Derby put her philosophy to work on a small ranch in northern California, where she founded PAWS (the Performing Animal Welfare Society), a retirement home for performing animals. It was also turned into a shelter for homeless animals, including a wolf, a coyote, two leopards, and a runt African elephant named ``71'' that couldn't keep up with the herd on a Florida millionaire's ranch.

Derby talks with each of the 15 animals in a unique, imitative ``language,'' pausing to let Harriet the baboon groom her through the cage bars, and handing ``71'' a hose so she can spray herself. She and partner Ed Stewart keep round-the-clock watch on the animals in the spacious, clean cages. PAWS is nonprofit and claims nearly 2,500 members.

Strangers driving down the country road would never guess that behind the ordinary ranch-style house with a cracked driveway is a miniature zoo. Here, in this peaceable kingdom, Derby plans a strategy for her fight to improve the lives of exotic animals in California.

Right now she's optimistic. At the close of the August California legislative session, Democratic state Sen. Dan McCorquodale announced he would form a study group consisting of zoo personnel, federal and state agency officials, and public-interest groups to deal with the question of exotic-animal care.

This question surfaced at the July 29 hearing into the alleged mistreatment of Dunda, an African elephant at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. Derby, who starred in the public hearing, is heartened by the public outcry and believes the incident has united animal rights supporters.

The hearing revealed that in February, Dunda, an 18-year-old African elephant, was disciplined with beatings by her handlers at the Wild Animal Park. Reports of the beatings - more than 100 blows to the head over two days - sparked investigations by the San Diego Zoological Society, the Humane Society of the United States, and the San Diego Humane Society.

Zoo officials decided to move Dunda from the zoo, after 11 years, to the nearby 1,800-acre Wild Animal Park because her ``highly excitable'' and ``defensive'' personality made her difficult to manage in the zoo. Following the move, Dunda lunged at a keeper with enough force to break a tusk, threatening the safety of her keepers, until Alan Roocroft, the park's elephant training supervisor, decided to discipline her ``in a manner that would get the most effect and cause Dunda the least harm.''

During the next two days, six trainers short-chained her legs, brought her to a kneeling position, and hit her on the head with hickory sticks (some reports said keepers used ax handles and elephant hooks), shouting, ``Dunda, no! Dunda, no!''

Zoo officials maintain that beatings are an acceptable form of elephant management and offered no apologies for the incident. Mr. Roocraft defended the session, saying keepers struck the elephant's head rather than her limbs to avoid permanent injury and let the animal see who was administering the punishment.

Witnesses at the hearing gave varying views of the severity of the beatings. Roocraft maintained the discipline sessions did only superficial damage to Dunda's head and did not break the skin. But veterinary reports from the San Diego Humane Society investigation describe ``excessive skin breakage'' and conclude ``the discipline went too far.''

Jeff Jouett, publicist for the Zoological Society of San Diego, the private corporation operating the zoo and park, says elephants are accustomed to a group hierarchy. ``Elephants look to the keeper, asking who's in charge. They may challenge the control, but basically they want a leader.'' Beating is an appropriate discipline for elephants, he adds, because herd members hit each other. ``After all, how much damage can a 180-pound human do to a four-ton animal?'' On the other hand, elephants' great size endangers trainers, so ``keepers must dominate.''

Derby disagrees. ``Trainers say that unless you dominate the elephant it will kill you. But it's the trainers who make a killer elephant by keeping the animal fearful and dependent.''

The hearing ended without agreement. But after the Dunda incident, the San Diego Zoological Society announced that in the future, Roocraft may recommend elephant discipline but a zoo veterinarian and a curator will make the decision.

Derby's appearance at the Dunda hearing angered and disappointed some zoo personnel who remembered when she rode her elephant, Neena, through the ceremonial opening ribbon at the Wild Animal Park in 1972 and later gave talks about her animals to zoo visitors.

``They wanted me to tell of the good times,'' Derby says. ``But I have to speak about what is happening now.

``Most people don't include zoos in the category of animal training, '' Derby says. ``But the San Diego Zoo trains animals for on-site shows and offers animal rides.''

Mr. Jouett says the zoo's performing animals ``are trained to show their natural behavior. For example, an otter will walk through a tube resembling a hollow log, demonstrating its natural agility, or an owl will fly silently in circles.''

``There's no training without some negative reinforcement,'' says Derby. ``To get an animal to perform on cue requires cruelty. A dog doesn't willingly jump through a hoop. A bear doesn't want to waltz.'' She has not been a sideline spectator in the animal world. ``I've personally done everything I'm criticizing. I've learned by doing wrong things.''

While working for animal trainers in Hollywood, she watched in horror as they electroshocked elephants in the vagina, anus, ear, or mouth; or broke the noses and burned the feet of bears to establish dominance. She began to ask questions: ``Do we have the right to hurt an animal that depends on us?''

Her colleagues told her to get tough or get out. Her marriage to animal trainer Ted Derby ended after a final argument over his insistence on using an electric cattle prod in training.

In 1978, Derby published ``The Lady and her Tiger,'' exposing the inside world of performing-animal training. In 1985, she fought for passage of a California law to improve the regulation and inspection of exotic-animal compounds statewide.

``I've been called anthropomorphic, a bleeding heart, and a victim of the Bambi syndrome for raising questions about animal treatment, but it hasn't quieted me,'' Derby says in a well-modulated voice.

``Animals can't speak for themselves. People have to speak for them.''

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