DEL MAR — Members of the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors were criticized at the March 11 meeting for continuing to allow elephant rides during the San Diego County Fair, which runs June 7 through July 6.
Since 2011, animal rights activists have tried to eliminate the rides after a secretly taped video released by Animal Defenders International shows trainers allegedly abusing the pachyderms at Have Trunk Will Travel, the company that provides the attraction at the fairgrounds.
Owners Kari and Gary Johnson say the footage is taken out of context and people who are not with “legitimate animal welfare organizations” are not qualified to comment because they “would not know what they are looking at.”
Although the contracts must be approved annually, the board voted 4-3, after a lengthy 2011 meeting, to continue allowing elephant rides at the fair until at least 2014, when an occupational safety policy adopted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums goes into effect.
Beginning this September, facilities must limit training to protected contact rather 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.
La Jolla resident Lynn Bruser called the rides “savagery committed towards the elephants” and said they put a “blight” on the city. She offered to reimburse the 22nd DAA, which oversees the state-owned fairgrounds, for any money lost if the rides were discontinued.
Bruser said she believes there are legal and safety concerns with “a 5-year-old child on an elephant.”
“This is not right and you know it,” she added.
Bruser also asked directors at the February meeting to stop the rides. “You dismissed us like we were bored, rich housewives,” she said to Vice President Dave Watson, who was sitting in for President Fred Schenk last month.
At that meeting, the board’s 2011 decision was reiterated by Watson, who voted against continuing the rides three years ago, saying the plan to revisit the issue after the 2014 fair was “kicking the can down the road.”
Alison Stanley, director of The League of Humane Voters in Orange County, praised the board for a decision made earlier in the March 11 meeting to ban the use of electronic cigarettes at the fair.
“It’s too bad that you also don’t take a stance on elephant abuse,” Stanley said. “With all the great events (at the fair) why do you need elephant rides? Why do you need an event that potentially endangers elephants or supports abuse?”
She said it is impossible to list safety and security as a No. 1 priority, as was stated during the e-cigs discussion, if the fair still allows elephant rides.
She said if the directors continued the attraction, they were either “cowards or corrupt.”
Britta Wilson, a former San Diego Zoo animal trainer, said protected contact ensures keeper safety and provides “no opportunity for the elephant to be abused.”
“There’s a better way of training” than free contact, Wilson said.
Kari Johnson said Have Trunk Will Travel discontinued its membership with AZA in November.
“Their policies are no longer conducive to the good work we are able to do for elephants in terms of our breeding program, conservation efforts and ambassadorship,” she said.
“A professional organization should incorporate in its policies consideration of the variety of management styles reflected in its membership,” Gary Johnson stated in a November letter to the AZA president notifying him of his company’s decision. “One style does not fit all.”
“The AZA policy restricting the choice of elephant husbandry methods would inhibit our and other highly qualified elephant keepers’ ability to fulfill the core principle of providing the best possible care for elephants.”
Johnson stated “a more productive role for AZA would be to provide state-of-the-art guidance to help elephant-holding facilities achieve the highest care and safety standards possible.”
“A policy defined by the lowest common denominator is a disservice to elephants and to the dedicated elephant keeping staff in AZA facilities that have produced stellar elephant care, breeding and educational programs.”
In response, AZA President Jim Maddy wrote that he respected the decision of Have Trunk Will Travel, which he described as a “valued member” of the organization since 1991.
“Your contributions to the conservation of Asian elephants and your devotion to the welfare of the species are well-known,” the letter stated.
Fred Schenk, 22nd DAA president, said the board will likely vote on this year’s contract for Have Trunk Will Travel at the April meeting.
The company is now accredited by the Zoological Association of America, which Kari Johnson describes as “a similar organization with standards for animal care that recognizes the value of human/elephant interaction.”
Schenk said when the new AZA policy is announced in September, he will review it for any modifications regarding the interactions between humans and animals.
“We were told in 2011 that the AZA would formulate a policy change,” he said. “What that policy is three years later may not be the same. We need to see the policy language. We don’t know what steps they are going to be recommending.”
He said board members will “do our due diligence and come up with thoughtful and well-reasoned evaluations.”
“We want to make the right decision for the county and for the people who come to the fair,” he said.