Bob Barker welcomes trio of Canadian zoo elephants to PAWS

Bob Barker has forever been a friend of animals.

The retired host of TV’s “The Price Is Right” has thrown his money and support behind countless causes for critters – from spay and neutering programs to crusades against circuses.

But bringing three former zoo elephants from Canada to Northern California this week just may be his biggest triumph, he said Monday as he welcomed the creatures to their new paradise, the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s ARK 2000 compound amidst the rolling hills of San Andreas.

“This was a triple play!” Barker said. “It was a real battle and one of our biggest successes.”

Barker, 89, who shares his Hollywood home with a pet bunny named Mister Rabbit, ponied up close to $1 million to fund the road trip to Northern California, and wanted to witness the arrival of the pachyderms in person.

Iringa, Thika and Toka, African elephants that had been living at the Toronto Zoo in Ontario, Canada, rolled safely into PAWS over the weekend after a journey of nearly four days inside trailers with special accommodations, handlers and veterinarians.

The Toronto City Council voted two years ago to send the elephants to the sanctuary after intense lobbying by Barker and others, who believe that most zoos are inappropriate living spaces for such large animals. The trio of pachyderms will join eight other elephants, including three Africans, that roam more than 2,000 acres of land in Calaveras County.

The ARK 2000 compound, the largest captive wildlife sanctuary in the United States, houses elephants, tigers and other large animals relocated from zoos or retired from the circus industry. It operates as part of the nonprofit PAWS, founded in 1984 by the late Pat Derby and her life partner, Ed Stewart. PAWS also runs two other sanctuaries in Northern California.

Stewart, who is considered one of the world’s leading specialists in the housing and care of captive elephants, will work with keepers and a veterinary team to introduce the new elephants to their new companions.

It is a delicate process that “may take weeks, months or even longer,” said Stewart. “Our job will be to give each elephant the best care and their own time and space in which to adjust.”

The first step came Sunday night, when the elephants emerged from their trailers and stepped onto Northern California turf for the first time. It was a sight to behold, said Barker.

“It was more than emotional for me, for all of us,” Barker said. “I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. It’s hard to believe they are finally here.”