A Southern California animal welfare group has asked the Kern County Fair Board to end elephant rides at the fair, saying the Have Trunk Will Travel company that provides them abuses the animals and will put fairgoers at risk.
An email sent to the Kern County Fair Board by Animal Defenders International includes, with the request to terminate the Have Trunk contract, a video showing company staff using staves and stun guns to beat and zap the large animals while training them to stand on their forelegs, balance on platforms and do other circus tricks.
“We think that bringing abused elephants into a crowded space like the Kern County Fair is a potential recipe for disaster,” said Matt Rossell, campaigns director for Animal Defenders International. “Based on the clear video evidence, these animals are being abused.”
But Kari Johnson, co-owner with her husband, Gary, of Have Trunk Will Travel, said the video that ADI states was shot in 2005 is “not representative of our training practices.”
Have Trunk has not changed its training practices since 2005, she said, but the video is a carefully edited creation that takes the incidents in question completely out of context with the purpose of making Have Trunk look bad.
“Its so powerful because it’s visual,” she said.
Despite that argument, groups like ADI have been successful in convincing other fairs and zoos to cancel elephant rides provided by Have Trunk Will Travel.
The Santa Ana Zoo ended elephant rides in December after 25 years, in part because new standards from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums call for animal handlers to minimize the time they spend in the same space as the massive animals, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Kern County Fair CEO Mike Olcott said he has decided to continue the elephant rides as planned when the local fair opens Wednesday morning. “I researched it and everything is OK,” he said.
The group has been providing elephant rides at the Kern County Fair for 10 years, Olcott said, and there has never been a problem. The fair has a contract with Have Trunk and, Olcott said, he believes it is too late to cancel the deal for this year.
But one member of the fair board, Mark Salvaggio, has called for Olcott to bring the decision to the fair board.
In an email to Olcott early Thursday afternoon, Salvaggio said he was “troubled over the questions” raised by the ADI email. He asked Olcott to add an item to the board’s Monday agenda allowing discussion and action on termination of the contract.
Olcott said he does not plan to put the item on the board agenda because agendas are released 10 days prior to the meeting and it is too late to add something to it.
Members of the public will be allowed to speak during the public comment section of the meeting but the board will not be able to act on their comments.
Olcott said that if his board president wants to put the issue on the agenda after the fair is over, the board can discuss it at that point.
The battle between animal groups and Have Trunk Will Travel — a for-profit business that provides elephants for films, commercials, weddings, fairs and other events — has been going on for a couple of years.
“In what context is it OK to shock and beat an elephant?” Rossell said. “The only justification I could see was if someone was in imminent danger.”
The video clearly shows that the animal handlers were not in danger from the elephants but instead were using the devices as part of routine training and animal husbandry and was shot over eight weeks, he said.
Johnson said the various groups that regulate her business — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — have seen the video and dismissed it.
Have Trunk is certified by the AZA as a “related facility” through March 2014, according to the association’s website.
“Shocking elephants and other violent behavior depicted in the video is prohibited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums guidelines, the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines, and in California statute,” Rossell wrote in a statement.
Johnson said her company has been warmly received at the Kern County Fair for the decade it has been there.