DEL MAR — Representatives from animal rights groups asked the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors at the June 7 meeting to cancel elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair, claiming the company that provides the rides 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 Riverside. He said it shows “egregious cruelty to elephants,” including Tai, the pachyderm featured in the movie “Water for Elephants” that was released in April.
Rossell claims 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.
Also speaking on behalf of elephants were Bryan Pease, an attorney with the Animal Rescue and Protection League, and Heather Drennan, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“They should have had a life in the wild,” Drennan said after providing her description of how the animals are captured to be used for entertainment.
Tim Fennell, fairgrounds chief executive officer, said Have Trunk Will Travel has provided elephants rides at the fair for at least as long as the 18 years he’s been there, if not longer, and he has “never, ever, ever received any complaints of how the elephants were treated in any way, shape or form.”
After learning about the allegations, Fennell said he researched training methods through the American Veterinary Medical Association and discovered there are various ways to train the animals.
He also learned Gary Johnson, Have Trunk Will Travel owner, is on the board of directors of the International Elephant Foundation, which supports elephant conservation and education.
According to its website, “Johnson is well respected for his involvement in California animal welfare issues.”
Fennell also said fairgrounds staff once visited Have Trunk Will Travel and came back with a “positive reaction” to how the elephants are trained.
Barry Nussbaum, board president, said he had already watched the video. “I don’t know what I’m looking at,” he said. “I’m not an expert.”
With the fair opening three days after the June 7 meeting, director Kim Fletcher said it was probably too late to cancel the contract with Have Trunk Will Travel, but he suggested fairgrounds staff monitor the ride, something Fennell said has always been done.
“We keep a close eye on all the animals here at the fair,” Fennell said, adding that there are “two sides to this story.”
“These are very serious charges,” Nussbaum said. He and the board directed staff to look into the matter further and report back. “I would like to learn more from experts,” he said. “I want all perspectives to make an informed decision.”
“We are unwavering in our commitment to elephants,” Johnson and his wife, Kari, wrote on a fan site for “Water for Elephants.”
“We stand by our care and training methods. We are proud of our contributions to elephant welfare and conservation,” they wrote. “Animal rights extremist groups … have no basis of knowledge or experience working with elephants. They have an agenda and a history of using less than honest means to achieve their goals.
“The video shows heavily edited and very short snippets, obviously taken surreptitiously six years ago, purporting mistreatment of our elephants,” the posting states.
Rossell said the video was taken in California on the Have Trunk Will Travel compound in 2005. He said Animal Defenders International has “a history of undercover investigations.”
He also said it isn’t “a two-sided issue.”
“They said they don’t hit or use electric shocks,” Rossell said. “But the video shows otherwise.”
Kari Johnson said she would only discuss the video with “legitimate animal welfare organizations … that would know what they are looking at.”
“I’m not going to go through the video,” she said. “It’s not in context and they’ve said stuff that’s so off the wall.
“It’s so hard,” she said. “We’ve done so much for and with the elephants. It’s so hurtful.”
There were no allegations that elephants were abused at the fairgrounds or during the fair. The video can be viewed on the Animal Defenders International website at adiusa.org.