FRANK BELLINO/THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE
Gary Johnson, co-owner with wife Kari Johnson of Have Trunk Will Travel works with one of his elephants at their home in Perris on 07/01/2011.
BY RICHARD K. De ATLEY
The Press Enterprise STAFF Writer
Published: 24 March 2012
he Orange County Fair Board last week ended 25 years of elephant rides at the popular summer event. The pachyderm supplier had been Have Trunk Will Travel, and it was just the latest decision affecting the Perris business.
Elephant rides at zoos, fairs, and carnivals have been under scrutiny in recent years by animal rights groups. And an accrediting organization, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in September set a new standard that declared barriers should be provided to keep contact minimal between elephants and their handlers and trainers.
While the Orange County Fair is not subject to AZA guidelines, the revised rules of elephant contact with humans was cited along with concerns of safety and liability in the 6-1 vote by the board on Thursday.
In December, the Santa Ana Zoo, which is subject to AZA guidelines, also ended its elephant rides after 25 years . Have Trunk Will Travel also contracted with the zoo. The San Diego County Fair, which also uses elephants from the Perris facility, voted in November to continue its elephant rides through 2014, when it will review the matter again.
In the Orange County decision, “the board seemed to have their minds already made up,” said Kari Johnson, who with her husband Gary owns and operates the 10-acre facility. “There were four hours of testimony, and just a few minutes of discussion. It didn’t seem like a very fair meeting.’
Johnson said the elephant rides at the Orange County Fair went on safely for a quarter century. “We never had anything happen.”
She said the effect was “just devastating. We do great business there, and we also loved that fair. There were a lot of kids that would send emails to the elephants. It’s like ending a relationship.”
Johnson said Have Trunk Will Travel has also supplied elephants for rides at the Los Angeles County Fair, but those are year-to-year engagements, rather than long-term contracts. The facility, which cares for six elephants, has also supplied the animals for movies and television shows.
It was one such movie, 2011’s “Water For Elephants,” that resulted in a lawsuit brought by two people backed by a group called Animal Defenders International. The lawsuit sought compensatory and other monetary damages.
The legal action claimed Have Trunk Will Travel used “bull hooks” and electric shock devices on the elephant featured in the film. Among the alleged evidence was a video the organization posted on its web site that purported to show mistreatment. Johnson said at the time the group had no knowledge or experience with working with elephants.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in December, “finding that Plaintiffs’ allegations fail to support any entitlement to relief with respect to Defendants.”