Elephant rides at the fair: Another look at the facts
July 5, 2013
After reading the response by Nevada County Fair board president Tom Browning and CEO Sandy Woods in The Union (June 24) regarding the board's decision to retain the contract with Have Trunk Will Travel for elephant rides at this year's fair, we at the Performing Animal Welfare Society felt compelled to respond.
Founded in 1984, PAWS operates three sanctuaries for captive wildlife — in Galt, Herald and San Andreas — that are home to more than 100 rescued and retired animals, including eight elephants, 31 tigers, six African lions and eight bears. We are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and by the California Department of Fish and Game. PAWS President and co-founder Ed Stewart, who spoke in person at the recent fair board meeting, has more than 32 years of experience in caring for elephants.
PAWS is speaking out against the elephant rides because we know elephants. When we tell you that elephants are a risk to human safety, it's because we know their powerful strength and their unpredictable natures as wild animals.
When we say that the training of ride elephants is inhumane, it is because we deal every day with the long-term physical and psychological problems that elephants used for entertainment suffer as a result of training no different from that used by Have Trunk Will Travel.
We know that the bullhook — the device resembling a sharpened fireplace poker that Have Trunk Will Travel trainers use to control the elephants — represents the threat of painful punishment and that elephants fear it. That's why you'll never see one used at our elephant sanctuary or at any progressive zoo.
Expert opinions have been offered to the board by Mr. Stewart and a leading group of internationally known elephant professionals — including experienced handlers, behaviorists and a highly regarded conservationist who debunked the notion that elephant rides contribute financially to preserving wild elephants.
Still, Ms. Woods, Mr. Browning and the board appear to have considered only the "facts" presented by Have Trunk Will Travel, which has a financial stake in the rides, and those individuals with personal and business connections to the company, such as its veterinarian and public relations spokesperson.
Some of the board's "facts" were mistaken. For example, Have Trunk Will Travel does not have an "excellent" safety record. The U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Have Trunk Will Travel last year for failure to handle safely its elephants while providing rides at the Central States Fair in Rapid City, S.D. And in 2001, an elephant owned by Have Trunk Will Travel slammed her trainer into a wall and took off on a run through a zoo, knocking down and injuring a child. Afterward, the company claimed the elephant had always been calm and highly reliable. A quick Internet search shows numerous incidents by other "reliable" ride elephants that ended in human injuries and deaths.
Perhaps the most suspect fact is that the fair board's contract with Have Trunk Will Travel contains no agreement for the company to pay an exhibitor's fee for being at the fair or to pay any money to the Nevada County Fair for the rides it gives to fair-goers. Yet the fair will bear the brunt of the controversy, negative media and risk to the public that comes with elephant rides.
If you're wondering why the Southern California-based Have Trunk Will Travel is making its way up to Nevada County, it's because county fairs in its area have recently made the decision to abandon elephant rides. The Los Angeles County Fair and the Orange County Fair have decided not to renew their contracts with Have Trunk Will Travel, and the San Diego County Fair will decide next year whether to continue the rides.
Elephant rides are being recognized nationwide for what they are: an unsafe, inhumane and outdated practice with no conservation value — you cannot teach respect when you treat an endangered Asian elephant like a carnival ride.
For more than a century, the Nevada County Fair has done just fine without elephant rides. They add nothing to the local flavor of this popular event and introduce needless controversy.
Those who care about elephants, public safety and about retaining the character of the fair can send a loud and clear message by shunning the elephant rides at this year's fair.
Catherine Doyle is the director of science, research and advocacy with the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas.