The San Diego County Fair Cares More For Money Than Animal Welfare

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We went to the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar last night to get our once-a-year fill of fatty fair food (lobster slider, a welcome visit from Los Angeles’ legendary Pink’s Hot Dogs, etc.). But located smack dab near the Lobster Shack was an elephant ride attraction run by Have Trunk Will Travel, the infamous Perris, CA elephant-rental company that has apparently been giving elephant rides (only $10!) at Del Mar for 30 years. (I’d forgotten that the fair allowed this company to subject these beautiful, majestic elephants to such demeaning treatment, and probably would have boycotted had I remembered.)

(Watch “An Apology to Elephants,” which is available now on HBO. It’s hard not to come away with a greater appreciation for the oftentimes cruel and inhumane treatment elephants endure in circuses, for rides, zoos, on film sets, in captivity — and at county fairs.)

While it seemed the handler had some genuine affection for her charge (she soothingly rubbed the pachyderm’s face as the next gaggle of giggly kids –and adults, who should know better — hopped on her back, preparing for their ridiculous “ride”), these creatures were still subjected to a slew of stress-inducing and anxiety-provoking stimuli from everywhere: they were forced to joyously march in a mindless clockwise circle-pattern, zombie-like (if you’ve seen Midnight Express you know what I mean) — on asphalt, no less — for what seemed like hours-on-end, amid the blaring, colorful lights and loud, jangling sounds that is a summer county fair. And the all-fearful bullhook was always in the handler’s hand to strike the fear of god into any potential recalcitrant animals who dare have the audacity to protest such treatment.

I mean look closely at the photo I took of the handler of the “resting?” elephant:

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Here’s a chilling close-up of one:


Here’s some information on bullhooks, which are criticized as negative reinforcement and cruel in “An Apology to Elephants”:

Bullhooks are rods with solid steel pointed ends (resembling a fireplace poker) which are specifically designed to inflict pain. If it were like a leash, it would look like a leash … people’s hands and elephant trunks are not made of steel. The claim that this weapon can be used positively is pure nonsense – the very nature of the bullhook is to dominate through fear and violence (i.e. get the elephant to fear the bullhook through violence). This is the only way it works – there are no “good” ways to use the bullhook .. which is why all sanctuaries forbid use of the bullhook and more than 50% of all zoos no longer use bullhooks. Only circuses and backward zoos and handlers still use this archaic and violent method of domination.

Available at:

I have to say that the handlers looked upon me suspiciously (confirmed by my girlfriend) as I shook my head in disgust. I even tried to yell over the cacophonous din of fairground noise (PA announcers, rides, whistles, screams…REO Speedwagon droning-on nearby live), “You’re using bullhooks!?” to the ticket seller. To her credit, she seemed open to a dialogue, yelling back, “We’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.” Instead, I took the above photos and said I’d complain to the fair directly.

Just know that current animal care literature has heavily criticized the use of bullhooks, and now emphasizes positive reinforcement instead for elephants, at least at such reputable, caring institutions as the Oakland Zoo. Here’s a great story on their elephant-conservation efforts:

Some background on this local Del Mar issue:

Supposedly the fair approved the elephant rides for 2013 despite yearly protests since 2011 by animal activists.

The issue came up last in November 2011, when dozens of people spoke for more than two hours before the board, both in favor of and opposing the elephant rides. At that time, a motion to ban the rides failed to get the required votes, so a compromise was reached in which the board will reconsider the issue following the 2014 fair

At Tuesday’s meeting, board members – even those who were in favor of banning the rides at the November 2011 meeting – said they wanted to stick by their earlier decision and take up the issue again after next year’s fair.

In 2014, new guidelines from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will take effect, advising elephant trainers to avoid all direct contact with elephants, and instead work with the animals through a barrier.

The fair board voted in spite of pleas from ride opponents, including animal rights activists, who said the animals are subjected to cruel treatment by trainers, and that the rides pose a safety risk to children.

“Not only are they cruel, unusual and inhumane, but they’re an accident waiting to happen,” said Melissa MacDonald.

“We’re wondering why the fairgrounds is continuing to play Russian roulette with the elephant rides,” Jane Cartmill of San Diego Animal Advocates.

Board members, however, said they had not seen evidence either of abuse to elephants by Have Trunk Will Travel, or incidents in which children were injured on elephant rides.

“I’m not convinced… that there’s been injury to children from riding elephants, at least in the last 10 years,” said director Frederick Schenk.

Director Russ Penniman said there is educational value to allowing children to interact with elephants, because some children might not be able to see them at local attractions such as the zoo or safari park. He denied that the rides, which generated just under $13,000 for the fairgrounds in 2011, were a major revenue generator, as some ride opponents suggested

“This is not a money issue,” Penniman said.

Available at:

At that time (2011), animal activists came out in force to protest Have Trunk Will Travel specifically, which also rents their allegedly beloved elephants out to Hollywood. (One appeared, ironically, as an abused elephant in “Water for Elephants.”) And they had video to prove it.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Animal Defenders International are attacking the company — Have Trunk Will Travel — over its treatment of their animals. The activists have recently released video that purports to show beatings, elephants being hooked with bull hooks and electric shocks being administered.

“Mostly we are concerned today about the cruelty involved in the training of ride elephants,” said Jane Cartmill of the San Diego Animal Advocates, who participated in Sunday’s protest. “It’s very abusive, violent training… animals being beaten by bull hooks.”

The elephant owners say the tapes were deceitfully edited…

But the elephants’ co-owner, Kari Johnson, said the activists “cut the film to take everything out of context and make it look far worse.

“We saw the video footage and agree that it looks terrible,” said Johnson, who owns the company in question with her husband. “It is our people and our elephants in the footage, but it is selectively edited and out of order… That’s their job. They take things out of context and edit it. They don’t think animals should be under human care at all….”

Available at:

And more recent findings (I know it’s the oftentimes overly melodramatic PETA, which really needs to better choose its battles so as not to ruin its tenuous credibility, but it’s worth noting anyway):

Newly released records reveal that in August 2012, the USDA conducted an inspection of HTWT and cited the company for its failure to maintain elephants under the direct control and supervision of a knowledgeable and experienced handler. The USDA inspector noted that during elephant rides, the elephant who was not used to give rides was not secured and often not supervised. A PETA complaint prompted the USDA inspection after photographs showed two adult elephants with HTWT in Aberdeen, S.D., hardly contained by low, inadequate fences and young children standing so close to the elephants that they could have easily come into contact with them.

Available at:

Back to Last Night:

While I did not see any handler use the bullhook last night in the half-hour I stood watching in anger, I couldn’t help but think that these serene, soulful, smart animals deserve a whole lot better.

Timothy Fennell, the CEO of the fair, claimed this back in 2011.

“Have Trunk Will Travel has been here on the grounds for 27 years. I’ve been here over 18 years and I can tell you I’ve received zero complaints from anybody,” he said.

Well, I just sent my first complaint to the SD Fair. I’m sure they’ve had more than a few in the three years since 2011. So what’s his excuse now? Money? I’ve got 13000 reasons why it appears the San Diego County Fair cares more about money than animal welfare (and their dignity).

According to PETA’s website, the Orange County Fair, the Los Angeles County Fair, and the Santa Ana Zoo have all cut their ties with HTWT.  So why not the San Diego County Fair?

Personally, I expect more from the city of Del Mar, which is actually a pretty progressive enclave in otherwise red-meat conservative San Diego.  As such, I urge anybody else who feels strongly about this abusive practice to also send an email to the SD County Fair. 

Here’s the email address given:

Or to the Agricultural Association Board, which governs the fair grounds:

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2 Responses to The San Diego County Fair Cares More For Money Than Animal Welfare

  1. Thank you for posting this information. I have been protesting out there for several years and have been there the past two weekends. I have been to the Board meetings and hopeful at the next vote they will wake up and through Kari Johnson and her abusive behavior out of San Diego.

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