Tuesday’s fair board meeting was twice as long as the last meeting June 20, featuring more than 60 speakers and an audience of approximately 300.
But the end result was the same, with the board of directors voting to continue its controversial contract with Have Trunk Will Travel to provide two elephants for local children to ride at the fair Aug. 7-11.
The fair board members, who had faced harsh criticism from some in the community for their refusal to bring the issue to a vote last month, took the time to explain their decision-making process.
The audience at the fairgrounds for the board meeting seemed evenly divided between opponents and supporters of the elephant rides, although the ratio among those who spoke skewed more than two to one against keeping the contract.
Fair board president Tom Browning told those in attendance that the board had identified three areas of concern and was hoping to hear new evidence in those areas that might change its opinions — safety concerns, the use of animals for entertainment and the reputation of Have Trunk Will Travel.
“The board looked long and hard at the video (provided by Animal Defenders International alleging cruel treatment) and the testimony,” he said. “We feel they have a very good operation … This is the mindset of the board.”
Browning warned the crowd the board would make up its mind based on the facts presented, not how many people spoke or how loud the applause was.
The public comments got off to a rowdy start when Al Vaccaro turned his back to the board to “address the animal activists” and castigated them for wanting to put organizations like Have Trunk Will Travel out of business.
People in the crowd began shouting him down, with the meeting quickly degenerating into a shouting match as Browning struggled to regain control.
Kathy Monteiro of the Coalition of Animal Welfare and Support struck a conciliatory note, saying, “I really feel like everyone here is on the same side. No one here is for animal abuse and neglect. What we have is a difference of opinion.”
Monteiro went on to say that she felt the evidence presented showed that Have Trunk Will Travel does engage in animal abuse.
Many of those against the elephant rides stressed that they support FFA and those who show animals at the fair and expressed concern that a decision to keep the contract would be extremely divisive in the community.
“The Nevada County Fair is a staple in our community,” said Elisa Parker. “It’s one of the only events in the community that brings us together. Look at the division (this) has created. Will you choose to be a community uniter, or will you choose to be a community divider?”
“One of the first things I learned on the council was to pick your battles wisely,” said former Nevada City Councilwoman Reinette Senum. “You have to weigh the benefits and the costs … You can’t control the winds, but you can adjust your sails.”
But those who spoke in support of the decision to feature elephant rides urged the fair board not to back down, and to honor the contract with Have Trunk Will Travel.
“Don’t adjust your sails too much,” said Hannah Ramey, 21, a former FFA student.
Horse trainer Sarah Ballou told the board members she totally supported their decision, noting that the shouting and name-calling going on at the meeting was abuse in its own right.
One opponent’s comment that the decision was making Nevada County residents look like “backwoods hicks” drew a heated reaction from local attorney Barry Pruett, who said ridicule and threats were common organizing tactics.
Almost every board member, with the exception of Jeanette Royal, spoke before making the decision to retain the contract.
Several noted they had watched the controversial video provided by ADI a number of times and noted the video was dated and showed only a few minutes of a reported 10 hours of footage.
“I spent hour and hours researching over the last few weeks because it bothers me how this is dividing the community,” said Karen Henderson, adding that she did a lot of research and consulted with an elephant behavior expert.
Board member Skip Lusk noted this was a contract issue, not an ideology issue, and told the audience he felt the board had a contract with the community to honor the advertised circus theme.
Only Shanti Emerson voted against keeping the contract with Have Trunk Will Travel, saying that while she found riding elephants an “extremely exciting, spiritual experience,” the contract had caused a community split.
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.