David Middlecamp: Now here’s a story you won’t ever forget

Elephant breath checker? Pachyderm dentist? Sometimes you run across a photo that asks more questions than it answers.

Fortunately the story by longtime staff writer Carol Roberts published Aug. 13, 1977, headlined “Home on the Mesa: Where the bears and an elephant play,” answers some questions.

It turns out Michael Jackson wasn’t the first zoo owner in the Santa Ynez Valley. But these animals ended up, for a time, on the Nipomo Mesa.

“Wild animal trainer Pat Derby, whose exotic menagerie was nudged out of the Santa Ynez Valley by people-pressure and into what was supposed to be a temporary home on the Nipomo Mesa, thinks she may have found a permanent home after all.

“Since March, when Ms. Derby was told to move her brood from a compound in the Santa Ynez Valley by Santa Barbara County officials, she has had the more than a dozen animals in quarters on the Mesa leased from Mr. and Mrs Earl Laursen ...

“Ms. Derby has applied to the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department for a permit to keep the animals permanently in a compound off Pomeroy Road. The animals include four bears, four wolves, a Siberian tiger, a cougar, several leopards, a raccoon and ‘Neena,’ a performing elephant. ...

“Santa Barbara County officials asked Ms. Derby to move her animals out after some Santa Ynez Valley ranchers complained the wild animal noises were disturbing their livestock, according to a Santa Barbara County Planning Department spokesman. ...

“On the Nipomo Mesa, the animals are housed in clean cages within a tree shaded fenced compound. They are watched over by 24-hour caretaker, Ray Ryan, 23. He went to work for Ms. Derby after she and her cougar appeared at an auto show in Chicago, his hometown.

“Neighbors have stopped by to see the animals and a South County school class recently visited the compound, but Ms. Derby said she prefers not to have the site pinpointed for the public. Most of the animals are defanged or declawed.

“ ‘I have no plans for a commercial venture there, but I’ll take individual animals out from time to time for TV and movie work.’

“Ms. Derby said she just returned with two bears used in filming the ‘Grizzly Adams’ TV series in Utah. She will appear on a taped ‘Merv Griffin Show’ Aug. 22 with her leopard ‘Spot’ and her most recent acquisition, a baby baboon named ‘Harriet.’ ...

“Her application for a permit for the Nipomo Mesa compound is being studied by County Environmental Coordinator David Harrow and members of the County Planning Department staff.

“Approval or denial could come at the administrative level, but could be appealed to the County Planning Commission, according to Warren Hoag of the planning staff. Hoag said the compound is in an agricultural zone that allows animal hospitals and kennels.”