Fair board OKs elephant rides, partnership with Del Mar, track widening

DEL MAR — Despite renewed pleas from a dozen people at the March 12 meeting to discontinue elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair, the 22nd District Agricultural Association Board of Directors upheld a 2011 decision and authorized a contract with Have Trunk Will Travel to continue the attraction this year. 

Beginning nearly two years ago, residents and animal rights advocates asked the 22nd DAA, which manages the state-owned fairgrounds, to stop the rides after an undercover video surfaced that allegedly shows Have Trunk Will Travel abusing pachyderms at its Ferris, Calif., facility.

Kari Johnson, who owns Have Trunk Will Travel with her husband, said the recording was taken out of context.

After several hours of testimony and board discussion in November 2011, 22nd DAA directors voted 4-3 to continue allowing the rides at the fair until at least 2014.

That’s when an occupational safety policy adopted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums takes full effect. It will require facilities to limit training to protected contact rather than free contact 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.

In addition to alleged abuse, speakers cited public safety as a reason to stop the rides. On the recommendation of a speaker, Director Fred Schenk Googled “elephant rides hurting children” and found no instances in the past 10 years by Have Trunk Will Travel or any other similar company.

“I welcome anyone who has that information,” he said, but no one did.

Directors authorized a contract with Have Trunk Will Travel for the 2013 fair, which begins June 8. They will revisit the issue next year.

At the March 12 meeting, directors also adopted a resolution to partner with Del Mar that will potentially help the city meet its affordable housing requirement.

The city must show it can accommodate — but is not necessarily required to build immediately — 22 units affordable to those who fall in the low- or very-low income category.

Because the fairgrounds is within the boundaries of Del Mar the units on that property could be used to fulfill the city’s requirement.

In 2011, the 22nd DAA approved expansion plans at the 340-acre site that include rebuilding dormitory-style housing, built in the 1930s, for seasonal employees.

As such, they wouldn’t qualify as affordable units. But with the addition of a kitchenette and restroom, they would.

Last month Del Mar council members adopted a similar resolution that acknowledges there would be additional costs to build the affordable units so the document states the city “will make its best effort to fund the added housing costs.”

As part of its resolution, the 22nd DAA agreed to build the units contingent on Del Mar’s “payment to the 22nd DAA (for) all added housing costs.”

The partnership is a win/win situation.

“We realized some of our employees might actually qualify for the housing so it will be helpful for us,” Director David Watson said.

Board members agreed nothing would be done that would compromise the master plan and environmental impact report that have already been approved.

Directors also authorized the final approvals for the turf track widening project that will increase safety for jockeys and horses as well as make the fairgrounds eligible for the Breeders’ Cup.

The track will be widened by 25 percent toward the inside rail. During the public review period, the 22nd DAA received three comment letters mostly supporting the project. Any negative impacts have been reduced to less than significant.

“This is a really big deal,” Adam Day, board president, said, noting that the wider track also allows more horses to run in each race, which will result in increased revenue. “This is really big news.”

The $4 million project will begin Sept. 5, the day after the 2013 horse racing season ends, and is expected to take eight months to complete.



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