Observations on elephant debate
July 27, 2013
Attending two public hearings before the board of directors on the controversial elephant exhibit at our Nevada County Fair, I watched with the intent of observing and learning. Now, with more than five hours of such participation coupled with on-site interviews of some who braved the public microphone, there are some common threads present in our community debate.
Those opposed to the elephant exhibit took the proper and allowed course by coming to the body tasked with making such decisions, specifically the board appointed by the state governor. Its duty is to provide ongoing educational and recreational events at our fairgrounds (which, by the way, is owned by the state, not the county).
Challengers put forth their thesis, the major points summarized as: Elephants are routinely mistreated and abused, present a physical danger to the public and carry undetectable disease (tuberculosis); and that it is immoral for humans to capture and train wild animals. These points were largely focused on the contractee for the event, Have Trunk, Will Travel, a California-based company.
What the hearings and subsequent interviews reveal is the two sides of the issue have divergent expectations of the meetings. One side, the opponents of the elephant exhibition, argued the question of "what." Board members were looking generally for information regarding "why."
The weight of responsibility rested with those opposing the elephant exhibit at the fair. Since it is their thesis, according to the rules of debate, it is required of them to demonstrate and defend that position. Their presentation involved "what" was wrong with the concept, generally, and the company bringing the elephants, specifically. Their position emphasized moral, social, and philosophical viewpoints. Additionally, there was reference to elephant abuse via a short and admittedly edited video taken undercover some years ago. (Six weeks ago at the first hearing, this observer noted the board requested a copy of the full 10 hours of video for its review and were publicly promised it would be provided. As of this writing, inquiry reveals the tapes have yet to arrive.)
At the second hearing, the board president advised that the board sought new evidence regarding the central issues of concern: safety of the public and abuse of animals. In other words, the board apparently had in mind the "what" of the discussion. It was looking for reasoning and evidence — presumably scientific, legal and philosophic — to support "why" opponents held to "what" they believed to be true.
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After three hours of public speakers, the majority of whom were in opposition, it was apparent very little new information had been brought to the discussion. The one new point of substance regarded the danger of tuberculosis carried by elephants. It was stated authoritatively that there is no way to determine if an elephant has tuberculosis until it is dead and autopsy performed. It was also claimed that two of the elephants held by the company have tuberculosis. (Since the animals are still alive, however, this argument seemed borne of spurious logic, given the former statement.) The opposition side of the debate, while impassioned with personal opinion, generally was devoid of required verifiable evidence.
With the opposition's thesis having been presented and defended, the board had the floor to rebut. During its opportunity, it responded to "why." The substantive and documented information emerging from the board members not only provided evidence to counter each of the concerns raised but also, and perhaps more important for us citizens, demonstrated the broad knowledge and expertise of the individuals comprising the board. Cursory inquiry shows their pedigrees include masters and doctoral achievements, training and experience in the fields of medicine, hospital administration, business, education, biology, law, agri-business, financial planning, real estate and service in elected public office. Board members making presentations were prepared, articulated their information clearly without emotion nor condemnation and documented their statements and research.
The board pointed out that treatment of all animals is regulated and investigated by not one but two agencies: California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the United States Department of Agriculture. Abuse and mistreatment are against the law, including the use of some of the instruments the opposition claims have been used. The company Have Trunk Will Travel has never been cited for such violations in its decades of operation. It is also certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is in good standing with that professional body. A 2012 document from USDA lauds the company's "excellent compliance history."
Regarding public safety, the board informed that tuberculosis can and is tested for in large mammals and emphasized the USDA does not allow any public contact with animals testing positive for TB. (Have Trunk Will Travel also tests its employees for TB, it was later learned.) Further, the public physical safety issue is also monitored by authorities. (Subsequent research: The insurance agency, which covers Nevada County Fair, and the firm, which insures the company, are both satisfied with the standard and appropriate containment and supervision provided by the fair and the company.)
In summary, there is very little room to dispute that the facts in this case are clearly with the board. It is particularly dismaying that some individuals chose to characterize the board members who voluntarily serve our community as being behind the times, uninformed, uneducated, uncaring or unprofessional. Unfolding of events outlined above proved otherwise.
That dismay aside, it is more concerning to this observer that an estimated three-quarters of those opposing the exhibit left the meeting either prior to or during the board's informative presentation. The premature exodus served to erode vestige of validity of the opposition's message. To be profitable, community debate and decision must proceed along the lines of fact and principle, not passion alone. Passionate belief, while winsome, is incomplete without substance, evidence and argument. These elements must be present in order to allow the public its best opportunity for informed decisions.
Dan Prout lives in Nevada City.