10/21/2013 08:05 EDT | Updated 12/21/2013 05:12 EST

Toronto Zoo elephants' 'journey' to California is over

Three elephants that left the Toronto Zoo on Thursday arrived at their new California home safe and sound on Sunday, causing those gathered to greet them to break into tears after a round-the-clock, 4,100-kilometre highway journey across nine U.S. states.

The first flatbed truck carrying Toka and Iringa in their crates arrived at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas, Calif., at 5:30 p.m. local time. The truck carrying the third elephant, Thika, arrived shortly thereafter.

CBC's current affairs program the fifth estate had exclusive access to the convoy's entire journey, sending live updates throughout the trip to their blog.

Fifth estate producer Lynette Fortune told CBC News on Monday that the elephants' safe arrival brought a wave of relief to members of their transport team.

"People were joyful, it was like a huge weight was lifted from their shoulders," she said. "When we pulled into PAWS, it was like, 'Finally, the journey is over.' They were laughing and crying and embracing each other. It was something to see."

A handful of people had gathered at the entrance to the sanctuary, located about 130 kilometres southeast of Sacramento, to greet the elephants as they arrived.

"People were standing on the side of the highway, waving signs applauding and yelling," Fortune said.

Also there for the arrival was Bob Barker, the former game show host and animal rights activist who covered the cost of the journey.

And although the journey was a success, it wasn't without its tense moments.

In Chicago, the convoy stopped so the elephants could be inspected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The inspection was scheduled, but there were worries it could lead to a long delay.

In the end, the Fish and Wildlife Service agents wished Thika a happy birthday. "They suggested that they buy Thika a muffin to celebrate," said Fortune. "That was [the elephants'] big hurdle and they just breezed right through it."

Further west in Nebraska, high winds brought cold temperatures and had some vehicles swaying on the highway, but again, the elephants were OK.

There were concerns about whether the trio of aging elephants — the oldest is 44 — would be safe over the long journey. There were also public fights between PAWS and Toronto Zoo staff about the animals' welfare during the move. Elephant experts from both groups formed part of the transport team.

Fortune said both groups appeared to have set aside their differences and worked "as a team" during the trip.

The convoy took breaks along the highway every four hours to rest and feed the animals. During these stops, large panels on their crates were removed, offering an unexpected view of the elephants to passersby.

At an Iowa truck stop, Fortune said a group of truckers' "jaws dropped" when they saw the animals.

Long council fight preceded long journey

Although their road journey was a gruelling one, the political fight that preceded their trip was an odyssey in itself.

Toronto city council voted in 2011 to send the three aging elephants to the PAWS sanctuary after animal rights advocates voiced concern for their welfare.

A series of squabbles involving zoo staff, city councillors and animal advocates delayed their departure.

In the end, it was decided to move the elephants to a new home in a warmer climate.

For more than a year, trainers worked with the elephants to prepare them for their move, so that the pachyderms would feel comfortable in their crates when being transported.

At the PAWS sanctuary, the trio is joining eight other elephants, including three female African elephants, named Maggie, Lulu and Mara.