DEL MAR — The controversy over elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair continues after a member of the Del Mar Fairgrounds governing board of directors received what he deemed a credible threat during an April 19 lunch with fellow attorneys.
Board Vice President Fred Schenk said during what he thought was going to be a casual discussion with Howard Finkelstein and Jeffrey Krinsk, both of whom he’s known for decades, Finkelstein made “some dark and disturbing comments.”
After the May 7 meeting of the 22nd District Agriculture Association (DAA), which oversees the fairgrounds, Schenk said he told Finkelstein the rides have been at the fair for 30 years without incident.
“Howard said, ‘God forbid something should happen. Maybe this is the year,’” Schenk said. “He said you and the board and the governor will be held accountable.”
Schenk said he asked Finkelstein more than once if that was a threat. “He wouldn’t deny it,” Schenk said. “That was very disturbing to me and it still is.”
The fact that the comments were made four days after the Boston Marathon bombings “was very troubling,” Schenk said. “That juxtaposition didn’t sit well with me.”
Schenk said he told other fairgrounds officials about the conversation, but never mentioned Finkelstein by name.
He said he and Director Lisa Barkett then called Sacramento to inform Gov. Jerry Brown’s office about the comments, again opting to let Finkelstein remain unnamed.
Schenk identified Finkelstein at the May 7 meeting, after an email Finkelstein originated was sent “far and wide.”
“I had a deep concern,” Schenk said. “I couldn’t take a chance. That’s why I went to the governor. I certainly wasn’t going to keep him in the dark.”
Controversy about the elephant rides began in June 2011 when representatives from animal rights groups asked the 22nd DAA board of directors to cancel the fair attraction, claiming the company that provides the rides abuses its pachyderms.
Matt Rossell from Animal Defenders International presented a DVD released by his organization that he alleges was videotaped at Have Trunk Will Travel in Riverside. He said it allegedly shows Have Trunk Will Travel owners and trainers using bull hooks — tools with a bronze or steel hook attached to a handle — and electric prods to train the animals.
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 was not in context.
Five months later, at the November meeting with several new governor-appointed directors, including Schenk, the board voted 4-3, after more than two hours of testimony by people on both sides of the issue, to allow the rides to continue until 2014.
That’s when the Association of Zoos and Aquariums 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.
The issue was resurrected during the March 2013 meeting when the board was approving contracts for this year’s fair. Directors decided unanimously to stand by their 2011 decision.
When Finkelstein noted to Schenk that Los Angeles and Orange counties both canceled the rides during their fairs, Schenk said Del Mar is different because it also hosts thoroughbred races.
“People have complained about that,” he said. “There are people who are advocating against horse racing. I didn’t want to create the first step along the way when in two years we’re probably not going to have the rides. They’ll just go away. There won’t be a vote because we’ll be complying with the AZA.”
Finkelstein said Schenk’s description of his comments isn’t entirely accurate. “Placing a child on the back of a 2-ton animal is obviously a dangerous situation,” he said. “It shouldn’t be allowed, including this year, because God forbid if something should happen.
“It would be horrible this year or any year and the community would be held accountable for allowing such an arcane and dangerous activity,” Finkelstein said. “I said, ‘I’m not threatening you. That’s ridiculous.’ If he mistook my concern for putting kids on the back of a potentially dangerous animal, I apologize.”
Schenk said he doesn’t believe Finkelstein would do anything criminal but he wasn’t sure about others.
Finkelstein said Schenk is trying to “cover up the bigger picture of what he described as abuse with the jockeys and horses during the races.”
As a result of the comments between the two men, two 22nd DAA security guards were posted at the May 7 meeting and the fairgrounds plans to add extra security and surveillance around the elephant rides during this year’s fair, June 8-July 4.
Finkelstein said it wouldn’t be necessary. “I’m not that stupid,” he said. “I have no knowledge of anyone planning to cause damage to anyone or anything at the county fair, nor do I have any intention of doing something that stupid or that horrible.”
At press time, Finkelstein’s law partner, Krinsk, did not return a phone call seeking his comments on what transpired at the lunch.
Finkelstein is chairman of The Foundation for Animal Care and Education, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to enhance and preserve the quality of life of animals by providing access to necessary medical care and education.
“This not as nefarious as it’s been made out to be,” he said of the lunch between the three men. “But I’m still shocked Fred is supporting this.”