DEL MAR — The 22nd District Agricultural Association recently received renewed requests to stop the elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair after the company that provides the attraction was cited for noncompliance by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Have Trunk Will Travel was cited for failing to maintain elephants under the direct control and supervision of a knowledgeable and experienced handler in August 2012 during the Central States Fair in Rapid City, S.D.
The USDA inspector noted that during the rides, the elephant not being used was not secured and often not supervised.
The January meeting agenda packet for the 22nd DAA, which governs the fairgrounds, included more than two-dozen emails — some from people who live out of state — urging board members to discontinue the district’s long association with have Trunk Will Travel.
Gary and Kari Johnson, owners of Have Trunk Will Travel, said the representation of the report from “animal rights extremist groups” is inaccurate.
“The report is under appeal,” the Johnsons stated in a letter to the 22nd DAA. “As soon as factual information is available we will share it with you.”
Kari Johnson said the company was reported as noncompliant during the inspection but any problems were corrected on the spot.
“We’ve been doing elephant rides for more than 30 years,” she said. “We’ve been licensed by the USDA the whole time. We’ve improved things for the better over the years but otherwise we haven’t done anything much differently.
“We appealed because we wanted to see if there’s something different about the way they’re (enforcing) the regulations,” she added. “And so far we have a perfect record. We’ve never had a noncompliance before.”
She said a noncompliance report can include something as simple as leaving the top off a feed bucket.
“What they wrote us up for was not really a big deal,” she said. A ruling on their appeal is due any day, she added.
Requests to eliminate the rides during the San Diego County Fair are not new.
This past June representatives from animal rights groups asked board members to cancel the rides, claiming Have Trunk Will Travel abuses its pachyderms.
Matt Rossell from Animal Defenders International gave board members a DVD released by his organization that he alleges was videotaped at Have Trunk Will Travel in Perris, Calif.
Rossell claimed the video 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.
Johnson 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.
At the November meeting, after more than two hours of public comment and discussion, board members voted to continue allowing elephant rides until at least 2014.
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.
He recommended phasing out the rides by 2014. Director Fred Schenk made a substitute motion, which was passed, to revisit the issue in 2014, when an occupational safety policy adopted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will require facilities to limit training to protected contact rather than free contact 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.
There have never been allegations that pachyderms were abused at the fairgrounds or during the fair, nor have there been complaints or problems about the rides.
Day said unless another board member asks to have the item put on a future agenda, which hasn’t been done, the board has no plans to revisit the issue.