More controversy arises over elephant rides

DEL MAR — The controversy over elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair continues after a member of the Del Mar Fairgrounds governing board of directors received what he deemed a credible threat during an April 19 lunch with fellow attorneys. 

Board Vice President Fred Schenk said during what he thought was going to be a casual discussion with Howard Finkelstein and Jeffrey Krinsk, both of whom he’s known for decades, Finkelstein made “some dark and disturbing comments.”

After the May 7 meeting of the 22nd District Agriculture Association (DAA), which oversees the fairgrounds, Schenk said he told Finkelstein the rides have been at the fair for 30 years without incident.

“Howard said, ‘God forbid something should happen. Maybe this is the year,’” Schenk said. “He said you and the board and the governor will be held accountable.”

Schenk said he asked Finkelstein more than once if that was a threat. “He wouldn’t deny it,” Schenk said. “That was very disturbing to me and it still is.”

The fact that the comments were made four days after the Boston Marathon bombings “was very troubling,” Schenk said. “That juxtaposition didn’t sit well with me.”

Schenk said he told other fairgrounds officials about the conversation, but never mentioned Finkelstein by name.

He said he and Director Lisa Barkett then called Sacramento to inform Gov. Jerry Brown’s office about the comments, again opting to let Finkelstein remain unnamed.

Schenk identified Finkelstein at the May 7 meeting, after an email Finkelstein originated was sent “far and wide.”

“I had a deep concern,” Schenk said. “I couldn’t take a chance. That’s why I went to the governor. I certainly wasn’t going to keep him in the dark.”

Controversy about the elephant rides began in June 2011 when representatives from animal rights groups asked the 22nd DAA board of directors to cancel the fair attraction, claiming the company that provides the rides abuses its pachyderms.

Matt Rossell from Animal Defenders International presented a DVD released by his organization that he alleges was videotaped at Have Trunk Will Travel in Riverside. He said it allegedly 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.

Kari Johnson, who owns Have Trunk Will Travel with her husband, Gary, said people who are not with “legitimate animal welfare organizations” are not qualified to comment on the footage because they “would not know what they are looking at.” She said the recording was not in context.

Five months later, at the November meeting with several new governor-appointed directors, including Schenk, the board voted 4-3, after more than two hours of testimony by people on both sides of the issue, to allow the rides to continue until 2014.

That’s when the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will require facilities to limit training to protected contact rather than free contact if they want to retain the association’s accreditation.

In free contact, elephants and handlers interact directly, while in protected contact there is a barrier between the two.

The issue was resurrected during the March 2013 meeting when the board was approving contracts for this year’s fair. Directors decided unanimously to stand by their 2011 decision.

When Finkelstein noted to Schenk that Los Angeles and Orange counties both canceled the rides during their fairs, Schenk said Del Mar is different because it also hosts thoroughbred races.

“People have complained about that,” he said. “There are people who are advocating against horse racing. I didn’t want to create the first step along the way when in two years we’re probably not going to have the rides. They’ll just go away. There won’t be a vote because we’ll be complying with the AZA.”

Finkelstein said Schenk’s description of his comments isn’t entirely accurate. “Placing a child on the back of a 2-ton animal is obviously a dangerous situation,” he said. “It shouldn’t be allowed, including this year, because God forbid if something should happen.

“It would be horrible this year or any year and the community would be held accountable for allowing such an arcane and dangerous activity,” Finkelstein said. “I said, ‘I’m not threatening you. That’s ridiculous.’ If he mistook my concern for putting kids on the back of a potentially dangerous animal, I apologize.”

Schenk said he doesn’t believe Finkelstein would do anything criminal but he wasn’t sure about others.

Finkelstein said Schenk is trying to “cover up the bigger picture of what he described as abuse with the jockeys and horses during the races.”

As a result of the comments between the two men, two 22nd DAA security guards were posted at the May 7 meeting and the fairgrounds plans to add extra security and surveillance around the elephant rides during this year’s fair, June 8-July 4.

Finkelstein said it wouldn’t be necessary. “I’m not that stupid,” he said. “I have no knowledge of anyone planning to cause damage to anyone or anything at the county fair, nor do I have any intention of doing something that stupid or that horrible.”

At press time, Finkelstein’s law partner, Krinsk, did not return a phone call seeking his comments on what transpired at the lunch.

Finkelstein is chairman of The Foundation for Animal Care and Education, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to enhance and preserve the quality of life of animals by providing access to necessary medical care and education.

“This not as nefarious as it’s been made out to be,” he said of the lunch between the three men. “But I’m still shocked Fred is supporting this.”


Filed Under: The Coast News


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  1. alexis kaiser says:

    How many “incidents” on elephant rides? How many “incidents” on mechanical rides? Get a grip fellas. If you fall prey to the AR agenda, you’ll have no 4H at the fair, no pig racing, no horse showing, no nothing. They are trying to change the world, one idiot who believes their shit, at a time.

  2. Gary Payne says:

    “More Controversy…” Really? There is no controversy. Logic and common sense should prevail. Taking a ride on an elephant is FAR more safe than swimming, football, riding a roller coaster, or crossing the street! Just ask the insurance people that gladly insure elephant rides! The “controversy” is instigated by animal “rights” bullys who use propaganda and scare tactics to lead others to believe they need to invent a problem for the animal rights agenda to solve…. Lets get Boston strong and say NO to the animal rights fund raising scammers. Congratulations to the Fair Board for standing up to the bullys and agreeing to offer elephant rides!

    • Kim says:

      Why on gods earth do you want to use “Boston strong” in your argument? Moron.

    • animal compassionate says:

      People standing up for animals are not bullies and we are not using propaganda Gary. We are using the TRUTH to educate people! With all of the videos and photos out there showing the extreme cruelty inflicted upon circus animals it boggles my mind that anyone could still support the industry.
      Your insensitive mention of “Boston strong” in your comment just goes to show what lack of compassion you have and what a vile human being you are. It actually explains why you still support the circus, you lack compassion.
      NONE of us at circus or fair protests are asking anyone for money so shut up about your assumption this is about “fundraising scams”. We are regular people who take time out of our own busy schedules to let others know what we have already found out – the truth is that circuses are cruel and these animals are living a miserable life of suffering.

  3. Pat Stevenson says:

    There is nothing like sitting atop an elephant with your grand daughters talking to the elephant and touching her head gently. It is a totally awesome experience.

  4. Pamela Meier says:

    AR activists are taking a “The sky is falling in” approach! Elephants in the circus, and/or circus rides, are loved, loved, loved and very well cared for!!! I wouldn’t trade contact with an elephant for anything in this world. We should not deprive our children and their children of this awe-filled contact with our loved and loving elephants. I really feel that these animals know that they are loved and therefore, they love us back – adults and children alike.

  5. Jane Cartmill says:

    Ahh, nothing says love like a bullhook and an electric prod!
    This is one more “attack the messenger” tactic. When you can’t defend your own position, try to taint your opponent’s character. Captive and performing elephants have been involved in many incidents where people were injured and killed. They are wild animals, not domesticated, and the risk is real. Children should not be subjected to that risk. Nor should elephants be bred for the purpose of walking in mindless circles to entertain unimaginative human beings. The Zoo ended elephant rides over 20 years ago, probably on the advice of their lawyers.

  6. Gina says:

    It is interesting reading the elephant ride/circus proponent’s responses, which by the way, Have Trunk Will Travel (HTWT) is…old circus folk. It is also interesting to see the same cast of characters writing on behalf of the HTWT time and time again. The image that immediately comes to mind is the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz slowing melting away and getting in her last words as she melts into oblivion. Circuses with animals and riding elephants in America will soon become a thing of the past and the circus folk know it. They are hanging onto old traditions and old ways of thinking about how animals should be treated. As America gets more progressive and aware of the abuse of animals in circuses and how the elephants are really trained and cared for that give rides, people are saying “no” to this type of entertainment. So circus folk, utter your last words and take your last gasps of breath like the Wicked Witch of the West because you know your days are numbered. Elephant rides and animal circuses with soon be a thing of history. Amen.

  7. animal compassionate says:

    In 2010 an elephant named Viola was performing with Cole Bros Circus in Lynchburg, VA when she bolted. Viola ran past circus goers waiting to go in and ran amok for a half hour before she fell down a steep ravine and was finally captured. Viola was back giving rides to children the very next day. What if she had children on her back when she decided to run? In 2011 that same circus had an elephant handler John Walker III aka Caudill that was repeatedly filmed leaving the elephant with children on its back so he could go talk on his cell phone. The USDA went in and fined them for it among many other violations.
    These elephant rides are accidents waiting to happen. Are you willing to take that chance with your child’s life?

  8. Deni says:

    Aside from being stolen from their Mothers during infancy, bull hooks, tasers, verbal and physical abuse are used on elephants inflicting them with pain and frightening them into performing. The notion that these enormous, wild animals would willingly perform such unnatural acts using a treat, love and praise is preposterous. How can any human being or parent want to support this obvious cruelty to animals? It’s 2013 and high time people stopped exploiting animals by forcing them to be at their whim for a brief moment of pleasure that is a lifetime of agony to the animal. The last thing that an elephant whose lost their own Mother and family structure and their natural habitat wants to do is be whipped into submission, shuffled around the globe in cargo, living in filth and on hard cement so they can cart around kicking, screaming kids and carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Also, there is tuberculosis in the elephant “entertainment” industry and wild animals getting loose during performances an additional risk to humans. When a child is harmed or killed during one of these acts, the very parent that though this was cool, is the first one in line to support a ban. Sad that it takes something so tragic to wake people up. Teach your children kindness not cruelty.

  9. Laurie says:

    I would also like to ask those responding who say that the circus and ride elephants are “loved, loved loved”…..How in the world do you think they train such a large animal??? By talking to them sweetly? Watch any video of trainings – all done by FEAR and INTIMIDATION!! Why do you think that they will be BANNING the bullhook in 2014??! Because it is a cruel instrument that circuses and ride operators use to train with. Aside from the way they are trained do you think that going around and around in a circle with people on your back day in and day out is a natural behavior for an elephant? What a horribly sad existence for human “entertainment” that the elephant in the rides and in the circuses have to live. As Deni said above – we should be teaching our children kindness and respect towards animals, educating them on the ways elephants really live in the wild – not going in circles at the fair. Too bad the board doesn’t take a more compassionate stance – that would really be a good lesson to show our kids. By the way – I am not an “Animal Rights Activist” just a concerned person when I see something or someone treated cruelly all in the name of “entertainment”.

  10. Cindy Wines says:

    After years of abuse, there will be a day when these elephants snap. If you watch the film of how the Johnsons abuse and train their elephants, it is criminal. If you watch how Ringling Bros circus abuse and train their elephants EVERYTIME they are to perform their stupid, demeaning tricks for stupid humans that want to watch animal abuse, you can see why these huge elephants say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. The elephants back is not as strong as you think. What do you think is done to make this wild elephant calm enough to walk around with people on its back. They are beaten, tazzered and smacked on the head with bull hooks. Grey hound races, horse races and elephants rides are all abusive and should be stopped.

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