By Marlena Medford
Have Trunk Will Travel, a company that provides elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair, is being accused of serious abuse by a group of animal rights activists.
An undercover video that was recently released by Animal Defenders International (ADI) purportedly shows a trainer striking a baby elephant with a sharp-ended heavy stick known as a bullhook. That elephant was later featured in the current blockbuster “Water For Elephants,” and therefore the allegations of abuse have garnered international attention.
During the June 7 board meeting of the 22nd District Agricultural Association (22nd DAA), spokespeople from ADI, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the San Diego-based Animal Protection and Rescue League all publicly spoke out against the company, claiming it also uses high-voltage electrical prods to make the animals submissive. They all urged the board to exclude Have Trunk Will Travel from this year’s fair, or at least investigate the claims.
22nd DAA board president Barry Nussbaum said he had seen the video and discussed it at length with the director of San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, who told him he was “not uncomfortable with what he saw.” However, Nussbaum also claimed that because he is not an animal expert, he was not entirely sure how to interpret the video. Therefore, he and the rest of the board agreed to direct staff to look into the allegations and get more input from other animal experts.
Del Mar Fairgrounds CEO Tim Fennell also said that Have Trunk Will Travel has been a part of the San Diego County Fair for nearly 30 years, 18 of which he has witnessed. Based on his experience, he said he has a high opinion of Have Trunk Will Travel.
“I have never received complaint from the public or staff,” he said of the company, adding that its owner Gary Johnson sits on the board of directors for the conservation group International Elephant Foundation.
Johnson has also released a written statement claiming the allegations of abuse are bogus.
“We stand by our care and training methods,” he wrote. “These groups have no basis of knowledge or experience working with elephants. They have an agenda and a history of using less than honest means to achieve their goals.”
Have Trunk Will Travel also provides elephant rides at the Santa Anna Zoo, and is currently being investigated for animal cruelty by that city’s staff.