The Orange County Fair & Event Center board voted Thursday to ban elephant rides at the annual fair after hundreds turned out to demonstrate against the adoption of a contract with the company that runs the elephant rides.
Members of animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Animal Defenders International implored Fair Board members to reject the 25-year old tradition of elephant rides at the fairgrounds, saying they were cruel to the elephants and unsafe for the general public.
Bolstering their case was the circulation of a video that showed trainers associated with Have Trunk Will Travel, the company that runs the rides, hitting elephants with sticks.
Hayden Hamilton, a PETA campaigner, said the popular perceptions about elephants as “gentle giants” were inaccurate. She warned fair board members that because of trainers’ physical punishments with sticks, elephants often times rebel. As wild animals, they are capable of rampages, Hamilton warned.
Trainers with Have Trunk Will Travel as well as numerous supporters attacked the activist video as “heavily edited” and told Fair Board members that their livelihood was not cruel to elephants.
Apart from the animal rights argument, Fair Board member Nick Berardino argued that the elephant ride tradition had to meet its end largely because of a change in regulations from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that would bar trainers and elephants from sharing a space. Berardino argued the change in regulations would trigger a steep increase in potential liability, which might raise insurance premiums.
Other Fair Board members, such as Stan Tkaczyk (also a Voice of OC board member) and Gerardo Mouet argued that the elephant rides didn’t have enough safety precautions in case of a rampage by one of the elephants.
Although Mouet said that the elephant trainers had an impressive facility in Perris, Calif., he had concerns about how the operation would work in Orange County.
“The issue at hand is putting members of the public on an elephant in a setting where I don’t think there is enough protection for the crowds,” Mouet said.
Fair Board President Joyce Tucker wept as she recounted what she described as a terrifying experience with her young granddaughter on the elephant rides, saying the animals were too large for such entertainment.
“I couldn’t get off the lead elephant fast enough,” Tucker said.
Fair Board member David Ellis took issue with the effort to ban the rides saying the tradition had deep roots within his own family as an annual event that helped him bond with his own daughter.
Ellis cast the only dissenting vote against Berardino’s motion to not renew the elephant ride contract. Fair Board member Kristina Dodge did not attend the meeting.
The move follows a similar action by the Santa Ana City Council to ban elephant rides at the Santa Ana zoo. The cities of Irvine and Huntington Beach also have banned the use of exotic animals at city-owned venues.
Orange County's is apparently the first county fair in the state to ban elephant rides.
Board members also unanimously agreed to establish a citizens’ oversight committee to delve into the controversy surrounding efforts from 2009 through 2010 to put the fairgrounds up for sale. Board members will finalize formation of the task force at the next monthly meeting, and it is expected to finish deliberations within 120 days from its formation.
Fair officials also gave board members an update on efforts to improve the Pacific Amphitheater, which include studying the sound attenuation associated with amphitheater improvements.
Fair board members also are considering in closed session a replacement for CEO Steve Beazley, who announced his retirement earlier this year.