Monica Otero, with Animal Defenders International, shows her shirt outside the Orange County Fairgrounds' office in Costa Mesa during a Fair Board meeting Thursday that discussed the renewal of a contract for Have Trunk Will Travel. The Fair Board voted 6-1 to discontinue the contract for the company, which provided elephant rides at the annual fair for years. (SCOTT SMELTZER / March 22, 2012)

For the Record: This story has been corrected to say Thursday's Fair Board vote was 6-1, not 7-1, and that board member Ali Jahangiri was also absent. In addition, it was board member Gerardo Mouet, not Jahangiri, who seconded Berardino's motion and who has toured the Have Trunk Will Travel facility.

 

After 25 years, elephant rides will no longer be offered to Orange County fairgoers, the Fair Board ruled Thursday during a packed, long and emotional meeting.

With more than 120 people in attendance at the fairgrounds' administration building in Costa Mesa, the majority of whom provided public comment, the board voted 6-1 not to renew the contract for Have Trunk Will Travel Inc., a Perris-based elephant training company that has provided rides at the fairgrounds for more than two decades.

Board member David Ellis dissented; members Kristina Dodge and Ali Jahangiri were absent.

The move follows the lead of the Santa Ana Zoo after the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, which adopted new safety standards last August for elephant care providers

"I've had 17 years of wonderful experiences [at the fair]," Ellis said, "and the photos to prove it, at $10 apiece, no less. I think we have very well-choreographed proponents and opponents, and I think this board is a bit blindsided by the proponents of this issue."

Board member Nick Berardino said the issue was more about modern-day attitudes about the rights of animals than a personal indictment against Have Trunk Will Travel.

"I think folks on both sides of this issue made very good arguments, and I appreciate the professionalism," he said. "But I think this is a matter of progression. More importantly, it's a matter of liability."

Seconding Berardino's motion, board member Gerardo Mouet, who has toured the Have Trunk Will Travel training ranch twice and noted that it is a well-kept facility, also cited public safety as the main issue.

"The likelihood of an animal going rogue isn't high," Mouet said, "but the consequences of something happening are catastrophic."

Public comments were split nearly in half for and against continuing elephant rides at the fair. Speakers included residents, longtime fair attendees, animal rights activists and veterinary specialists.

Kari Johnson, who co-owns Have Trunk Will Travel with her husband, Gary, noted that though she was aware that her company's contract was up for renewal, she had only 10 days notice to prepare for a public meeting of this magnitude. She also felt bombarded by the appearance of animal rights groups.

"We're very disappointed," she said. "We truly believe in what we do. We know that what we do is right and good. It is safe.

"The director who said he would like to have seen something different, well, he's on the Fair Board, so I would have assumed he would have walked over and looked at the elephant rides if he were interested in that. I didn't know how to answer something that I didn't know they were interested in."

Irvine resident Katie Maneeley, who has spoken out on issues of elephant abuse and the use of elephants for entertainment, said the day was "about learning."

"This has nothing to do with Have Trunk Will Travel; it's not an attack on that company," she said. "It's the industry as a whole. When you look at it collectively, how many cities have put bans in place, collectively, it's about making sure these elephants are cared for and doing what's right for them."

Redondo Beach resident Sarah Conley, who has known the Johnsons and their elephants since she was a child, saw the decision as unfair and uninformed, stating that, "Animal rights groups have made the O.C. Fair and its board of directors accomplices in causing the extinction of the Asian elephant."

Paul "Sled" Reynolds, an animal trainer best known for his work in films — most recently in "Water For Elephants" and "Life of Pi," which used Have Trunk Will Travel elephants — spoke favorably of the Johnsons' company.

"The elephants need to make a living, too," Reynolds said, which caused an outcry among half the attendees.

Animal Defenders International (ADI), a global campaign against inhumanity and animal cruelty, was represented at the meeting by two of its members: Campaigns Director Matt Rossell and President Jan Creamer, who flew from London to attend.

Rossell, who spoke during public comment, described the results of ADI's eight-week internal investigation of Have Trunk Will Travel. He presented the findings in a video segment showing allegedly "violent acts" against the elephants.

"Elephants don't forget," Rossell said, as he demonstrated what he described as "weapons" used to train the elephants, including a bullwhip, a hook and a loud, high-voltage Taser. "They remember the last beating."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a statement applauding the board's "compassionate, safety-conscious decision" Thursday afternoon.

"Elephants beaten in order to force them to perform are more prone to rampaging," it states, "so by canceling these cruel and dangerous elephant rides, the Orange County Fair Board is ensuring that no parents or children will be injured in such an incident at the fair."

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