Perceived threat results in extra security for elephant rides at this year’s SD County Fair

By Joe Tash

Extra security and surveillance will be in place at the elephant rides at this year’s San Diego County Fair, after a member of the fair’s governing board reported what he perceived as a threat conveyed by a local attorney.

The elephant rides, which have been an attraction at the fair for the past 30 years, have become controversial in recent years.  In 2011, following a two-hour hearing with testimony on both sides of the issue, the board of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees the state-owned Del Mar fairgrounds, voted 4-3 to continue the rides, but to consider cancelling them after the 2014 fair.

Elephant ride opponents spoke again at the 22nd DAA’s March meeting, when the contract with Have Trunk Will Travel, which operates the elephant rides, came up for renewal.  The board voted unanimously to approve the contract for this year’s fair, which begins on June 8.

Concerns about a possible threat arose after a meeting in April between 22nd DAA board member Fred Schenk, and two local attorneys, Howard Finkelstein and his law partner, Jeffrey Krinsk.

At the Tuesday, May 7 22nd DAA board meeting, Schenk said he was told by Finkelstein that if the board did not cancel the elephant rides and something happened, Schenk, the fair board and the governor would be held accountable.

“He was in my view reporting a potential risk to fair-goers,” Schenk said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

After the meeting with Finkelstein, Schenk said, he reported the incident to fellow board members, and also called the governor’s office inform them what had happened.  Members of the 22nd DAA board are appointed by the governor.

Finkelstein, who did not attend the 22nd DAA board meeting, confirmed that he met with Schenk, with the purpose of informing him about information that had surfaced regarding the treatment of elephants at Have Trunk Will Travel’s Riverside County training facility.

Several years ago, an undercover video shot at the compound allegedly showed trainers abusing elephants with heavy metal hooks and electric shocks.  Company officials, however, have repeatedly denied harming elephants in any way, and said that investigations by government agencies have not found any wrong-doing.

Finkelstein, who said he is involved in animal welfare issues, denied threatening Schenk.  He said he commented that it would be horrible if something did happen involving the elephant rides, but insisted he has no knowledge anyone planning to disrupt or interfere with the rides.

“If he took that as a threat, I apologize.  I didn’t threaten him.  I didn’t mean it as a threat,” Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein did say that he believes the rides are “arcane, antiquated and obviously dangerous,” simply because children should not be placed on top of a two-ton elephant.

Finkelstein said Schenk may be trying to discredit him to cover up what Schenk reportedly said at the lunch meeting was the real reason the board voted in March to approve the contract with Have Trunk Will Travel.

In an email that has been widely circulated, Finkelstein wrote that at the lunch, “Fred explained that the reason that the board can’t ban these rides is because it might lead to the discovery of the much more serious abuse of the horses by the trainers and jockeys at the Del Mar Race Track, which provides millions of dollars in revenue to the county.”

After Tuesday’s 22nd DAA board meeting, Schenk denied Finkelstein’s characterization of his comments.  Schenk said he did tell Finkelstein that although the Los Angeles and Orange County fairs banned elephant rides, San Diego is different because it has thoroughbred racing, and there are people opposed to the sport of horse racing.  A board vote against elephant rides could be seen as a precedent for horse-racing opponents, Schenk said.

In his role as a 22nd DAA board member, Schenk said, he is well aware that horse racing revenue goes to the state, and not the county, which he said also casts doubt on Finkelstein’s version of their conversation.

Schenk said he believes the San Diego County Fair’s elephant rides will likely be phased out after September 2014, when new guidelines are expected from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums restricting contact between humans and elephants.

Due to the perceived threat reported by Schenk, security officers were posted at the 22nd DAA meeting on Tuesday, and Schenk said the district also plans to beef up security and surveillance at the elephant rides during this year’s fair.

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