Nearly 40 people spoke at a hearing Thursday that stretched for almost two hours on whether the Nevada County Fair should allow elephant rides at the fairgrounds.
But in the end, less than a minute of silence ended with none of the fair board members making a motion to cancel the contract with Have Trunk Will Travel, which is providing two elephants for local children to ride at this year’s fair Aug. 7-11.
The meeting immediately erupted with cries of disbelief, and many in attendance came forward to vocalize their displeasure.
“I told them I was disgusted,” said Kathy Wronski after the meeting. “They had their decision made before anyone got up to talk. They totally ignored us.
“I think everybody’s mouths dropped,” Wronski added. “I think they should have had a discussion … I think they’re really going to regret this.”
Nevada County Fair CEO Sandy Woods said earlier this month that the organizers for the Nevada County Fair thought that elephant rides would be a fun addition to this year’s theme of “Under the Big Top.”
But the board of directors’ decision to contract with Have Trunk Will Travel generated a massive amount of controversy.
A coalition of animal activists attended the board’s June meeting to express its concern, and the board agreed to officially hear a request to have that contract voided at its Thursday meeting.
Board President Tom Browning told the crowd beforehand that if no motion was made, that meant the contract with Have Trunk Will travel would remain in place.
“I’m sure we’ve all read monuments of documents,” he said, joking, “I never knew YouTube had so many videos.”
Have Trunk Will Travel co-owner Kari Johnson spoke first, telling the audience she met her husband, Gary, while they were working with elephants, and they have continued to make elephants their life’s work for more than 40 years.
“The closest thing to our hearts is the conservation work that we do,” she said, mentioning their breeding program, fundraising and educational work.
Ed Stewart, co-founder of Performing Animals Welfare Society, cautioned the board about the possible dangers of having an elephant run amok at the fairgrounds.
“If it does happen, it’s mayhem,” he said.
The majority of those in attendance spoke out against elephant rides, for a variety of reasons, including safety concerns and the alleged inhumane treatment of the elephants at the hands of their trainers.
Several speakers alleged that the elephant group’s trainers use “hot shots,” or electric prods, “with abandon,” a charge vociferously disputed by Have Trunk Will Travel representatives.
And more than one speaker warned the fair board the elephant rides would precipitate a boycott of the fair.
“I attend the fair every year, and I love it,” said Grass Valley resident Marie O’Donnell. “This is going to change for me.”
Tommy Daly said he attended the board meeting on behalf of his young daughter, saying that he strove to teach her to live by the golden rule.
“I won’t bring her to the fair if the rides are here,” he said.
“Stay local … emphasize Nevada County,” urged Nevada City resident Charlie Price. “Elephants defuse your image … This fair is renowned. Keep emphasizing what’s great about here.”
Several mother-daughter pairs spoke, with one girl, AJ King, telling the board, “I do not think you should bring elephants to the fair — people do not treat them nice.”
Have Trunk Will Travel representative Paul O’Sullivan charged that the “very well-organized political campaign” against the elephant rides was all about raising money for national and international animal rights groups. Several speakers endorsed Have Trunk Will Travel and the work they do.
“This is a class act,” said Grass Valley resident Norman Carman. “This is really a shame if we let people stop this from happening.”
Stephen Chambers, executive director of the Western Fairs Association, warned the board that canceling its contract could lead them down a “slippery slope” where all animal-human interactions could face a ban.
Don Tucker, who provides pony rides at the fair, told the audience he has witnessed the training at Have Trunk Will Travel but drew hoots of derision when he said, “It’s not abuse, it’s correction.”
After the public comment section of the meeting, board President Tom Browning opened it up for comment by the board. With no response, he told the crowd the contract would stand.
“They were certainly welcome to give their opinion,” Browning said after the meeting.
“Their silence told me they were in favor of continuing the contract.”
Browning said he was not concerned about the prospect of a boycott or a potential drop in attendance, adding that the board tries to provide multiple attractions to appeal to a number of different segments of the community.
“I feel in my heart that when the community sees the elephants here, they’re going to love it,” Kari Johnson said. “That’s what we can do, put people together with elephants, to have a personal connection. We love our elephants, we spend our lives with them, and to be able to share that is a gift.”
JP Novic and Shelley Frost of the Center for Animal Protection and Education, a local organization that has been spearheading the opposition to the elephant rides, said after the meeting they were “stunned” at the lack of discussion.
“There was not one word spoken by them,” Novic said. “It was just so shocking.”
Both women pledged to continue working to educate the board and the community, but stressed they do not support an across-the-board boycott.
“We support the fair,” Novic said. “We want people to go to the fair. We just don’t want them participating in the (elephant) rides.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.