Elephant rides to be held at fair in Del Mar again this year

By Joe Tash

Elephant rides – a tradition at the San Diego County Fair for nearly 30 years – will once again be offered at this year’s fair, in spite of a renewed effort by opponents of the rides to have them banned from the fairgrounds.

A dozen speakers urged the board of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds, to ban the ride at this year’s fair, which runs from June 8 through July 4.

The board, however, voted unanimously at its meeting on Tuesday, March 12, to approve a contract with Have Trunk Will Travel, which has operated the fair’s elephant rides for 29 years, to provide the rides at this year’s fair.

The issue came up last in November 2011, when dozens of people spoke for more than two hours before the board, both in favor of and opposing the elephant rides. At that time, a motion to ban the rides failed to get the required votes, so a compromise was reached in which the board will reconsider the issue following the 2014 fair

At Tuesday’s meeting, board members – even those who were in favor of banning the rides at the November 2011 meeting – said they wanted to stick by their earlier decision and take up the issue again after next year’s fair.

In 2014, new guidelines from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will take effect, advising elephant trainers to avoid all direct contact with elephants, and instead work with the animals through a barrier.

The fair board voted in spite of pleas from ride opponents, including animal rights activists, who said the animals are subjected to cruel treatment by trainers, and that the rides pose a safety risk to children.

“Not only are they cruel, unusual and inhumane, but they’re an accident waiting to happen,” said Melissa MacDonald.

“We’re wondering why the fairgrounds is continuing to play Russian roulette with the elephant rides,” Jane Cartmill of San Diego Animal Advocates.

Board members, however, said they had not seen evidence either of abuse to elephants by Have Trunk Will Travel, or incidents in which children were injured on elephant rides.

“I’m not convinced… that there’s been injury to children from riding elephants, at least in the last 10 years,” said director Frederick Schenk.

Director Russ Penniman said there is educational value to allowing children to interact with elephants, because some children might not be able to see them at local attractions such as the zoo or safari park. He denied that the rides, which generated just under $13,000 for the fairgrounds in 2011, were a major revenue generator, as some ride opponents suggested

“This is not a money issue,” Penniman said.