Ag. board votes to keep elephant rides at San Diego County Fair

By Joe Tash

Elephant rides will continue to operate at the San Diego County Fair for at least three more years under a split vote by the fair board at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8, in spite of a request by animal rights groups to ban the popular fairgrounds attraction.

The board of directors of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees operations at the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds, listened to more than two hours of testimony by supporters and opponents of the elephant rides before voting 4-3 to reconsider the issue following the 2014 run of the fair.

Board members Adam Day, Russ Penniman, Lisa Barkett and Frederick Schenk voted to keep the elephant rides for three more years, while directors Tom Chino, David Watson and David Lizerbram voted against the motion. Director Ruben Barrales was absent.

The issue arose in June, when a representative of the group Animal Defenders International addressed the board, asking for the elephant rides to be banned from the fair. The group presented a video, which it said was shot undercover at the Riverside County compound of Have Trunk Will Travel, the company that has run the fair’s elephant rides for 27 years. The group said the video showed trainers at Have Trunk Will Travel abusing elephants by striking them with a training tool called a “bull hook,” and shocking them with an electrical device.

“Do we want elephants abused just for a few minutes of entertainment of kids riding on their backs?” asked Matt Rossell, campaign director of Animal Defenders International, during his testimony on Tuesday. Rossell said such techniques are never used in public, but instead take place in private, beyond the view of fairgoers and inspectors.

“They know that it’s wrong to do this, that’s why they do it in secret and that’s why no one has seen it,” Rossell said.

Rossell’s group was joined in its request by the groups People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and the Animal Protection and Rescue League of San Diego.

But Kari Johnson, co-owner of Have Trunk Will Travel with her husband, Gary, defended the company’s treatment of its six Asian elephants, and said that banning the rides will hurt the pachyderms because revenue from such activities helps pay for their care. The company also provides elephants for parades, circus acts and movies and television shows, Johnson said.

“We do honest, important work to earn the money to take care of our elephants,” Johnson said. She said the company is in full compliance with the guidelines of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and has passed inspections by agencies at the federal, state and local levels. Under questioning by fair board members, Johnson said her company has never been issued a violation for improper treatment of its animals.

After listening to dozens of speakers either extol the virtues of Have Trunk Will Travel and its elephant rides, or blast the company for alleged elephant abuse, the fair board debated whether it should continue allowing the attraction or not. According to a report prepared by fair staff, the elephant ride attraction generated a space rental fee of $12,875 for the fair last year.

While much of the discussion centered on treatment of the elephants, fair board member David Watson questioned whether the rides are safe, noting that the AZA recently issued guidelines calling for zoos and other exotic animal facilities to phase out “free contact” with elephants by 2014 out of concern for safety of trainers. Free contact means trainers mix with the elephants without barriers between themselves and the animals.

“Elephants sometimes kill keepers by accident,” Watson said.

Board member Lisa Barkett questioned the accuracy of the undercover video of Have Trunk Will Travel, noting that edits and repeated scenes indicate the images may have been manipulated. Because of those concerns, Barkett said, she visited the company’s compound in Perris unannounced, and was allowed to tour the facility.

She found the facility to be “incredibly well-maintained,” and as for the elephants, she said, “You could tell they were loved. There was love in their eyes.”

“I’m for the rides. I think it’s a good thing, and I think the community thinks it’s a good thing,” said director Russ Penniman.

Board president Adam Day said such activities as horse racing, 4H and Future Farmers of America are appropriate for an agricultural district, but, “The place for exotic animals is in zoos and we don’t operate a zoo here.”

Gary Johnson insisted the elephant rides provided by his company are safe. “We’ve given thousands and thousands of rides here at Del Mar and we’ve never had an incident.”