DEL MAR — After more than two hours of sometimes zealous comments by everyone from veterinarians and animal activists to trainers and residents, the Del Mar Fairgrounds board of directors voted 4-3 at the Nov. 8 meeting to continue allowing elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair until at least 2014.
At the June 7 meeting, just before the start of this year’s fair, Matt Rossell from Animal Defenders International asked board members from the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which manages the fairgrounds, to discontinue elephant rides claiming the company that provides the service abuses the animals.
ADI released a video earlier this year that representatives say was recorded secretly in 2005 at Have Trunk Will Travel Inc., the company that has provided elephant rides at the fair for nearly three decades.
About nine minutes of edited footage from the 45-minute recording shows handlers hitting the pachyderms at times with bull hooks.
Kari Johnson, who owns Have Trunk Will Travel with her husband, Gary, said people who are not with “legitimate animal welfare organizations” are not qualified to comment on the footage because they “would not know what they are looking at.” She said the recording is not in context.
There were no allegations elephants were abused at the fairgrounds or during the fair. The video can be viewed by Googling most key words associated with the allegations or organizations.
More than 125 people attended the Nov. 8 meeting and there was no shortage of allegations and name calling from people on both sides of the issue. Of the nearly 50 who spoke, about two-thirds favored continuing the rides.
But when director David Watson made an initial motion to discontinue the rides, his reasoning had little to do with the video or anything the speakers said.
Watson based his decision on an occupational safety policy recently adopted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requiring facilities to limit training to protected contact rather than free contact on or before September 2014 if they want to retain the association’s accreditation.
In free contact, elephants and handlers interact directly, while in protected contact there is a barrier between the two.
According to the policy, there are exceptions, which Kari Johnson said would likely apply to Have Trunk Will Travel. She said her company has consistently received AZA accreditation since 1993.
“We have faith we can keep doing what we’re doing,” she said.
Director Lisa Barkett said she made a surprise visit to the Have Trunk Will Travel facility in Perris and was let in immediately.
“I was amazed at what I saw,” Barkett said. “What I observed was not what I saw in the video.”
Describing herself as an animal lover, Barkett said she was “looking for signs of mutilation” or abused animals and found none. She said the elephants had “love in their eyes” and the facility was “incredibly well-maintained.”
“Before we take a strong stance and ruin someone’s livelihood … we should consider the ramifications of any decision,” Barkett said.
Director Russ Penniman agreed, noting that there have been no safety issues with the rides in the 30 years they have been at the fair. “It’s … a matter of jobs,” he said, adding that fair-goers can choose to ride the elephants if they want to.
“The community can vote with their pocketbooks if they don’t think it’s a good thing,” Penniman said.
Noting there were strong arguments on both sides, board President Adam Day said the decision came down to the fairgrounds’ function as an agricultural district.
There’s a difference between 4-H Clubs and horse racing and wild and exotic animals, which belong in zoos, Day said. “We don’t operate a zoo here. … It’s not our purpose to exhibit wild animals.”
With that, Day recommended phasing out the rides by 2014, but director Fred Schenk made a substitute motion to revisit the issue in three years when the AZA policy is in full effect.
Watson said he could have supported the phase-out plan, but revisiting is simply “kicking the can down the road,” so he, Tom Chino and David Lizerbram voted against continuing the rides.
Kari Johnson said she was happy with the decision.