The Santa Ana Zoo is one of the few in the country still offering such rides, as most zoos have bowed to pressure from animal welfare advocates and discontinued the practice, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.
Zoo Director Kent Yamaguchi defended the rides, saying the animals are well cared for and that strict safety guidelines are in place.
And, he said, those who experience riding on an elephant come away as admirers and even advocates for the animals.
"You can't ride these animals without being struck by their power and their majesty," Yamaguchi said.
"The main reason we have the ride is to educate people about what these animals are all about … and that's why zoos are around: to be able to give people that close relationship with the animals."
Opponents counter by saying the animals are exploited and visitors put at risk while the practice goes against the zoo's responsibility for animal care and conservation.
"By providing elephant rides, the Santa Ana Zoo is acting more like a circus than an accredited zoo," Lisa Wathne of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said.